Anthropologist’s Hands See Details of History

by Olivier Uytterbrouck

Braille Monitor

November, 2001

From the Editor: Many people don’t believe us when we say that blind people are engaged in most of the occupations you can think of. One of our scholarship winners last summer was Cheryl Fogel, working on a Ph.D. in archeology. Here is a story from Cheryl’s home state about another woman who is interested in old bones. The story first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal on June 5, 2001. It is reprinted with permission.

Marsha Ogilvie has a new skull to explore: a cast of a 30,000-year-old Neanderthal called the Old Man of La Chapelle. Her fingers trace the Old Man’s jaw. “See how thin that jaw is?” she asks, sliding her finger along a smooth line of bone. “If you bit into something hard, you could snap that.” The slender bone indicates the Old Man—so named because he lived about fifty years—lost all his posterior teeth well before his death. “You can tell everything from bones except what color socks they wore,” she said. “All you have to do is look at them.” In Ogilvie’s case her fingers must do all the seeing for her. Diabetes stole Ogilvie’s eyesight during her senior year in anthropology at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.

In December, after slogging away for sixteen years in graduate programs, Ogilvie received a Ph.D. in biological anthropology from the University of New Mexico. Something else that intrigues her about the Old Man is two small holes at the top of the skull. The tiny pits, each about the diameter of a pencil, tell Ogilvie that disease has attacked the bone. “An injury has a sharp edge; a disease is more rounded,” said Ogilvie, who is especially interested in the remains of Neanderthals. “There’s something working on that bone. The two holes could help explain how the Old Man died,” she said. After she lost her sight in her late twenties, Ogilvie assumed her career in anthropology had ended. That changed in 1985 after she moved to New Mexico and volunteered at UNM’s Maxwell Museum in the osteology lab.

She had many doubters when she first resumed her studies and enrolled in graduate classes at UNM. “At first everybody thought I was nuts,” Ogilvie recalled. But day by day she showed up for class and worked at the Maxwell Museum, eventually becoming manager of the osteology lab. She relied on talking computers and fellow students to help her through reading assignments. In place of notes she tape-recorded lecturers and summarized the information on a second recorder, reviewing the tapes repeatedly for exams. “I basically got my degrees with two tape recorders,” she said. She also devised a variety of tactile devices to help her learn technical scientific concepts. To study the structure of DNA, Ogilvie built models of the double helix out of pipe cleaners and string tacked to a cork board. And she used wooden blocks marked with the letters A and B to simulate the mechanics of recombinant genetics. “I had to find different ways to do everything that most people take for granted,” she said. But in so doing, Ogilvie came up with new ways of learning that some of her sighted colleagues found useful, she said. Students who tried their hand at Ogilvie’s tactile models discovered that abstract concepts made more sense, she said. “The more senses you stimulate, the better you are going to learn something,” Ogilvie said. Now Ogilvie and a colleague, Albuquerque dentist Steve Wagner, want to apply that idea at museums throughout the country. Wagner and Ogilvie plan to create miniature replicas of museum artifacts that would allow blind people to experience museum exhibits.

Their first model went on display in February at the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science in Albuquerque. An anthropological sculptor, Wagner made a miniature reproduction of a dinosaur skeleton now on display in front of the full-size exhibit. Ogilvie helped design an audio tour that guides listeners as they move their fingers over the model. Their next project will be to create models for the Albuquerque Aquarium. The pair have received a $15,000 grant from the McCune Charitable Trust to pay for up to ten models. The models are intended to give blind people their first glimpse of marine creatures such as jellyfish, she said. Ogilvie also makes a living doing forensic investigations, something she picked up in her years at UNM. The Office of the Medical Investigator relies on UNM anthropologists to examine findings of human bones. Last fall she began working for public defenders in federal immigration cases, analyzing the bone structure of illegal immigrants using data from X-rays.

Federal officials sometimes use radiological data to help determine the ages of illegal immigrants facing deportation or criminal charges, she said. The outcome of a case may hinge on whether the person is an adult or a juvenile. Immigration officials are often reluctant to rely on Mexican birth records to determine age because of the possibility they could be forged, so they prefer to use radiological data, she said. The use of X-rays is based on the fact that human bones fuse as we age. The extent to which an individual’s bones have fused can help determine a person’s age.