GALLUP, N.M. – Daniel Pedro knew when he was a sophomore at Santa Fe Indian School that he wanted to be an anthropologist. He also knew that as a Zuni, he would not be able to touch human remains – a common task for physical anthropologists.
“It was kind of a barrier,” said Pedro, a 20-year-old freshman at the University of New Mexico-Gallup. “I had to find a way to work around it.”
Pedro began to look for that way through his participation in the New Mexico Supercomputing Challenge. The challenge aims to teach teams of middle and high school students how to use powerful computers to analyze, model and solve real world problems and awards prizes in various categories.
Pedro hit on the idea of studying the faces of living puebloans in search of consistent similarities and then projecting that data onto the past as a way to identify and repatriate skeletal remains. As stated in the executive summary of his project, “My goal. … is to make it easier for anthropologists to figure out which tribe/pueblo the remains belong to on the computer, instead of disrespecting Native customs and damaging the skull.”
An early advisor, UNM Curator of Human Osteology Heather Edgar, told Pedro that the people of the pueblos, both present and past, were too mixed to make the sort of determinations he was seeking. Nevertheless, she was impressed by his inventive approach to problem solving, and encouraged him by giving advice on how to go about his project. She also gave him a medical diagram of a human skull with which to start his studies.
“We need a Native perspective in anthropology, and especially a perspective that comes from working with living communities,” Edgar said.
Pedro’s unique project soon attracted several other advisors and mentors.
“They were impressed by the fact it was a student who wanted to do this kind of work, and a high school student and a Native American at that,” Pedro said.
Pedro began to work in a computer program called StarLogo, which allowed him to rotate two objects side by side and compare the objects in different profiles. He decided to concentrate on the human skull, comparing shapes that represented skulls. His goal was to create a method for anthropologists to determine which tribe or pueblo a skull might belong to with only minimal handling. The result was an entry for the Supercomputing Challenge called “Scan of the Past.”
“He learned a lot about the mathematics of 3D computer graphics and the rotation and scaling of 3D objects on the computer,” said Irene Lee, who oversees a grant program at Santa Fe Institute, and was previously lead facilitator for the SFI-MIT Adventures in Modeling program in Santa Fe when she worked with Pedro.
For this phase of his project, he received the Judges’ Choice Award for “Integrating Computation into Anthropology” from the Supercomputing Challenge.
The second phase of his work was on a new version of “Scan of the Past,” with the help of Steve Guerin of Redfish Group, a Santa Fe-based business that specializes in data mining and visualizing. Guerin helped Pedro during his senior year construct a proxy data set, which would allow him to practice clustering techniques and classification algorithms, or in other words, construct real world data.
Pedro learned how to integrate actual facial data collected after he photographed and studied 15 landmarks on the faces of 45 individuals – fellow students whom he persuaded to participate in his project. Generally, says Edgar, studies are made with as many as 50 landmarks on a human skull, but because Pedro was concentrating on faces, his study was limited to far fewer.
Although this phase of the project did not earn an award, he did receive an award from the Supercomputing Challenge in 2008 – 2009 for creating a graphic poster and logo.
“Daniel took on a computational challenge that was meaningful to him and his community,” Lee said. “He is a great role model of a self-directed student researcher. He found an interesting, unsolved problem he could address. He overcame many obstacles and persevered with the project over several years.”
“It was great to have help from so many mentors,” Pedro said. “I had wondered if my project would be taken seriously because this was something really new.”
After graduating from high school in 2008, Pedro enrolled at UNM-Gallup, where he is studying, among other subjects, anthropology with professor Teresa Wilkins.
Last year, he got a taste of the museum work he hopes to make his career by working at A:shiwi A:wan Museum and Heritage Center in Zuni, where he learned how to care for exhibits and worked with the photo collection. He also got some good career experience this past summer by participating in the Conference on Archaeoastronomy of the American Southwest, Camp Verde, Ariz., where, with researcher Anna Sofaer, writer, artist and founder of the Solstice Project, he presented a poster on a new interactive computer model of the Chaco Canyon Sun Dagger site.
His work with Sofaer helped him see that Native Americans “did marvelous things,” and reinforced his idea that, when studying historic sites, “It’s best to listen to Native American oral traditions about what happened at these sites. If we can integrate these traditions with what we can learn from modern technology, we can create another level of thinking.”
As Pedro continues his journey toward a bachelor’s degree in Southwest Studies at UNMG, and beyond, to a Ph.D., the intention that inspired his high school project will be very much with him. He wants to continue to explore ways to use technology to repatriate human remains and relics to the tribes they belong to. At the same time, he wants to build on what he learned from his high school project and his work with the Solstice Project to bring computers into anthropological work in a way that will help Native Americans understand who they are.
“As an example, time may overtake the original Sun Dagger site and it will become part of nature, but a replica of the model will be there to teach how Native Americans used the solstice at Chaco, and how they measured time,” Pedro said.
Wilkins applauds Native students like Pedro who are looking to apply “sophisticated technology to [solve] real problems,” and echoes his hope that today’s Natives will become empowered to make their own identifications of remains in order to repatriate them. She also believes that such an applied approach to anthropology as Pedro’s project undertook may be “highly significant in empowering Native people to conduct their own research.”
Pedro hopes his vocation as an anthropologist will show Native Americans that eventually they should not have to take classes to “be Native.” After all, he points out, most of the non-Natives who have taught American Indians about their history and culture cannot have complete information because, “There is a limit as to how much we can share. Keeping the culture or religion with the community keeps our identity within the community, rather than having it spill out.”
Ideally, he says, those studying and interpreting the research some way will be Natives who will not only share this knowledge with their communities, but also mediate what is shared with non-Natives.