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January 8, 2018

Debra L. Martin challenges theories on tribal violence

(Benno Kraehe/ Daily Collegian)

Debra L. Martin spoke at the University of Massachusetts Commonwealth Honors College on Oct. 23 to present a lecture on biocultural violence.

Martin is a UMass alumna under the late George J. Armelagos, former professor of anthropology. For the past 35 years, she has been studying historical violence in the Southwest United States.

Currently, she is a professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and is an expert in bioarcheology.

This lecture was hosted as the fourth annual Armelagos Lecture on Biocultural Anthropology.

Thomas Leatherman of the UMass Department of Anthropology introduced Martin as “a prolific and innovative scholar in developing biocultural approaches in bioarcheology.”

Before the lecture began, Martin stated that the purpose of her lecture was to provide a solution to “an approach to thinking about violence in the deep past that people often don’t understand so they tend to stereotype it or assume it’s just like violence today.”

She then began her lecture by proposing her theory of body annihilation and massacres as a means of ritual violence to expel those who were thought to be witches and the causes of bad fortune in the community. She argued that while violence causes suffering and death, it also functions as a means of purifying a community.

In the talk, Martin spoke of approaches used to gain understanding of small-scale communities through the use of modern bioarcheology. One approach entailed integrating bodies with their environmental setting and utilizing theory in connecting data with biological processes.

“Archeologists have focused on droughts and endemic warfare as an explanation for migration and social change, but others, including myself, have challenged that,” Martin said.

She went on to explain how the unique indigenous behaviors of different tribes cannot be restricted to modern notions of war and peace.

Martin also spoke on the notion of the existence of cannibalism, specifying that “not a single human tooth mark has been found ever on a human bone in the Southwest.” She argued ritual violence — not cannibalism — was the cause of ambiguous marks found on bones.

Martin explained that the evidence in the bones not only showed a community’s attempt at preserving the purity of its people and the violent nature in which they did so was symbolic in nature, but also gave insight into the normalized complexities of their culture.

Martin also explained evidence of other habitual aspects of ancestral tribes, such as small scale feuding and raiding amongst tribes and the enslavement or execution of females unwilling to surrender.

Martin concluded her talk by emphasizing how violence and behavior contributes to social unity and are evidence of the ideological aspects of a society.

Niki Bavar, a freshman English major, found the lecture interesting.

“The idea of war and peace not being the standard interpretation of violence is very cool,” Bavar said.

Steve King, a primatologist and former professor at UMass, went to the lecture to catch up with his former colleague and her work.

“I thought it was fascinating,” King said. He went on to recognize the work Martin has done as great and her links to the anthropology department at UMass under the tutelage of Armelagos who “created this field of bioarcheology” and who this annual lecture series was created in memory of.

While Janis Pham, a freshman microbiology major, has gone to numerous lectures, this particular one stood out to her.

“She connected it to stuff that’s going on now…like how just not giving access to food to homeless and poor people are acts of violence and oppression,” Pham said.

Bonnie Chen can be reached at and followed on Twitter @bonnie_chenn.

One Response to “Debra L. Martin challenges theories on tribal violence”
  1. Ed Cutting says:

    “She argued that while violence causes suffering and death, it also functions as a means of purifying a community.”

    Whiskey Tango Foxtrot?!?!?

    “…the enslavement or execution of females unwilling to surrender.”

    It’s called “rape” and “murder.”
    We’re talking about kidnapping 12-year-old girls and raping them on a daily basis.
    I don’t have a problem condemning such things as being inherently wrong.

    “She connected it to stuff that’s going on now…like how just not giving access to food to homeless and poor people are acts of violence and oppression,”

    First, we do. Over half the Massachusetts budget goes to this, as does a quarter of the Federal budget.

    Second, is she comparing rape & murder to an insufficient public dole????
    Does she realize that this often constituted genocide practiced on a tribal basis, i.e. to exterminate another tribe?
    For that matter, is she familiar with what the Aztecs and incas did to their own children???

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