Malus, '15, Does Bronze Age Dental Detective Work in India

September 20, 2013

Tori Malus, '15, and anthropology and sociology professor Brad Chase stand in Lothal, an important settlement of the Indus Civilization located in Gujarat, India.
Tori Malus and anthropology professor Brad Chase stand in Lothal, a key settlement of the Indus Civilization located in Gujarat, India.

Tori Malus, ’15, participated in some fascinating detective work this past summer—work that is providing new insights into the agricultural practices of Bronze Age people of the Indus Civilization, in what is now India. Her research experience also has solidified her plan to pursue a career in forensic medicine after graduation. 

An anthropology major and biology minor, Malus traveled to India this summer to work alongside Albion College anthropology professor Brad Chase and his colleagues David Meiggs of the Rochester Institute of Technology and P. Ajithprasad of the Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda. Using a type of drill commonly used by dentists to make dentures, Malus collected tiny samples of tooth enamel from ancient animal teeth found at archaeological sites of the Indus Civilization (2600-1900 BC). As Chase explains, “Studying the bones and teeth of animals opens an exciting new window into the lives of the people who raised them.” Chemical analyses of isotopes in the tooth enamel that Malus helped collect will provide information on where livestock animals were raised, what they ate, and the environment in which they lived.

Supported by grants from Albion College and the Wenner-Gren Foundation, this research allows Chase to learn about agriculture and trade in the past—and how the ancient economy changed through time. This work is important because most of the cities and towns of the Indus Civilization were eventually abandoned and the civilization was lost to history until the 1920s. As Chase explains, “We know that society underwent major changes with the decline of the Indus Civilization. This work will shed new light on the extent to which ancient peoples’ land-use practices contributed to or were impacted by these changes.” Ultimately, Chase hopes that exploring issues of sustainable development in the past will inform the decisions facing policymakers in the present.

Tori Malus used a type of drill commonly used to make dentures to collect tiny samples of tooth enamel from ancient animal teeth found at archaeological sites of the Indus Civilization
Malus used a type of drill commonly used to make dentures to collect tiny samples of tooth enamel from ancient animal teeth found at archaeological sites of the Indus Civilization.

A native of Holland, Mich., Malus had taken several of Chase’s classes and had worked with him as part of Albion’s Student Research Partners Program during her first year. Nothing, however, could prepare her for the work she would be doing with the ancient teeth. “Sampling the teeth was a three-step process, starting with removing them from the mandible or maxilla,” Malus explained. The teeth were then cleaned with a carbide drill bit and washed in ultrasonic cleaner before using a diamond drill bit to take tiny samples of clean enamel. The work was very delicate. “I had to be careful to keep the teeth from breaking,” she said, adding that, “the first couple of weeks were a slow process while I got the hang of the pressure the samples could handle.” Malus was a quick study, however, and Chase said they ultimately ended up with more samples than he expected, noting, “We never would have accomplished the amount of work that we did without Tori’s hard work.”

While archaeological research was the central mission of the trip, Malus also learned much about Indian society today. “I researched by day and explored the city at night and on weekends,” she said of her first experience with Indian culture. Moreover, while archaeology was the focus of Chase’s research, many of the scientific techniques Malus learned will be useful as she pursues a career in forensic medicine. Work as a resident assistant and saxophonist in the British Eighth marching band will leave Malus little time to pursue the research during the fall semester, but her experience has only deepened her respect for Albion.

“Everybody asks why I chose Albion,” she said. “Now I have a concrete example. The experience is hard to top.”