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Skeletons at SUNY Plattsburgh

Professor uses campus as a home for the largest collection of ancient Maya skeletons


skulls
Out of the 600 Mayan skeletons, only about 12 intact skulls remain.

Mark Cohen
Mark Cohen examines a female pelvis.

skeleton map
This map shows the location of the 600 skeletons found at the church site.

Other research has been done by three doctoral candidates from Indiana University and SUNY Albany, and approximately five to ten Master’s candidates have also worked with the Mayan skeletons. "I and the students involved were enormously excited at the prospect [of working at the site]," Cohen recalls. "I have made a lot of new friends among graduate students from other universities who came here to do doctoral dissertations and masters’ theses about the collection."

Just as Cohen has made friends among the visiting graduate students, students in Cohen's classes benefit from his lectures. "Dr. Cohen's excellence as a teacher, characterized by his comprehensive understanding of material and the ease and effectiveness of his transmission of his knowledge to students, which I encountered for the first time in that course, is something to which all other teachers should aspire, as are his commitment and openness to his students," said Robert Abel, a senior at SUNY Plattsburgh.

While there are no airport terminals or customs to deal with on the SUNY campus, Cohen keeps his family of 588 skeletons carefully locked away. "He's always made the anthropology department feel like more of a home than an office," Abel said. Who knows, perhaps the skeletons feel at home too.

      

Using the DNA
Melissa Kopp, senior biochemistry major at SUNY Plattsburgh, has spent the last nine months studying the DNA from skeletons found at Tipu. To date, the DNA from 11 bodies have been extracted and analyzed. Using a DNA Sequencer, paid for by a $25,000 technology grant, Kopp is mapping the migratory routes for the Ancient Mayan skeletons.

Initially, Kopp started her research by trying to extract DNA from the femurs of the bodies. "We want the study to be as non-invasive as possible because of the ethical issues dealing with Mayan remains and their culture," Kopp says. "[Extracting] from the femur required too much to get the number of cells necessary to examine. We now use the teeth."

Three other sites: Xcaret, Copan and contemporary (present-day) Maya have been studied to determine their migratory route in one of four routes spanning from Africa. Tipu, Belize harbors the largest collection of Ancient Maya to date.  The Xcaret study was done in 2001 on 25 Mayan bodies, nine Mayan bodies in Copan (1997) and 27 contemporary Maya (1992).

"By the end of the [Fall] semester, I think we will surpass the research at the other sites," mentioned Nancy Elwess, Associate Professor of Biology at SUNY Plattsburgh.

In November, Kopp and another student from Plattsburgh presented their posters at a research conference in Florida. Both individuals won.

 


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