News Release: People, Teaching

Sep. 30,  2008

Top Anthropology Award Goes to Emory Professor

George Armelagos, professor and chair of anthropology at Emory University, has won the 2008 Franz Boas Award for Exemplary Service to Anthropology. The career achievement award is the highest honor given by the American Anthropological Association (AAA), with previous winners including the likes of Margaret Mead.

During a career spanning more than four decades – and still going strong – Armelagos has blazed new trails in paleopathology, helped found the specialty of nutritional anthropology, and integrated his research with teaching in ways that inspired legions of students.

"What's unusual about George is his extreme love and warmth for colleagues and students, combined with scholarly brilliance and unbelievable productivity," says Alan Goodman, immediate past president of the AAA, and a former student of Armelagos.

The son of Greek immigrants, Armelagos grew up outside of Detroit. While still a graduate student, he worked on a dig funded by the National Science Foundation in Sudanese Nubia, including human remains that dated back 500 to 10,000 years.

"Every skeleton has a story to tell," says Armelagos. "You can learn how a person lived, and how they died."

He didn't restrict his analysis to individual skeletons, however, applying epidemiology and demography to study patterns of illness and death among populations. This revolutionary approach to paleopathology led to a flurry of groundbreaking papers, and the discoveries keep coming.

The amount of scholarship done by Armelagos and his colleagues have made the Sudanese Nubians the most studied archeological population in the world. Working with his graduate students, Armelagos discovered tetracycline in the bones of the Nubians – the first documented case of ancient people consuming low levels of this naturally occurring antibiotic, which was likely generated by beer made from grain stored in clay pots.

Armelagos is a world expert on the impact of the human diet on evolution. In 1980, he co-wrote "Consuming Passions," about the anthropology of eating, which was popular in book clubs and is referenced in classrooms to this day.

His work documenting the origin and spread of non-venereal syphilis in the Old and New World has also garnered widespread interest, adding new clues in the debate over whether Columbus and his crew brought the devastating venereal variety of the disease home with them to Europe.

During 14 years at Emory, as department chair and Goodrich C. White Professor, Armelagos has helped solidify the university's reputation as a national leader in the interdisciplinary, bio-cultural approach to anthropology. The stellar record of the students going on to prestigious jobs in academia is one mark of the department's success.

"What's exciting to me is seeing students get excited about research," Armelagos says.

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