WCU professor hoping to unlock Mayan mysteries by scanning bones

WCU professor hoping to unlock Mayan mysteries by scanning bones
Researcher using CT machine to scan 500 year old bones
Researcher using CT machine to scan 500 year old bones

PASCAGOULA, MS (WLOX) - Five centuries later, a group of Mayan bones from Central America are in South Mississippi, where medical professionals are using state-of-the-art technology to study them.

Dr. Jennifer Hotzman, an assistant professor of anatomy at William Carey University, is studying the bones that were excavated from Tipu, which is located in modern-day Belize, in the late 1970s.

"This site was post-contact, so the Spanish had just come to this Mayan population," said Hotzman, "So what I'm interested in looking at are the juvenile remains. And I want to see what kind of impact that the Spanish had on the health and development of the children."

She says she's accomplishing that by analyzing the long bones that are present to see if there were any kind of developmental delays or if they developed as we would expect them to as a healthy population.

"We basically want to learn exactly how the Mayan individuals, the native population, were affected or influenced by Spanish contact," said Hotzman.

For CT Tech Alan Poole, it's not the typical day at the office. Usually, CT techs -- which stands for computed tomography technologist -- use medical imaging equipment to scan patients for medical purposes. Friday, however, the techs at Singing River Hospital had a different assignment -- to scan the Mayan bones.

"It was kind of odd at first," Poole said, "I've been doing this for 16 years and I've never encountered an experience like this. So it's pretty cool."

Hotzman says having the CT machine available means saving the bones for future study.

"To do the analysis that I'd like to do, I need to look at the overall geometry of the bones, including the internal geometry," she says. "Since these bones are irreplaceable, we don't want to have to do anything destructive. So the CT scan allows us to see the inside of the bones without actually destroying any of the materials."

For the staff at Singing River Health Systems, like Director of Radiology Karen Ehlers, taking part in the study means being a part of history.

"It's super exciting because we like to get our patients who are walking and talking and communicating with us but this gives us an opportunity to really go back in time and be able to share what our CT scan equipment will show, what was really happening with these bones from 500 years ago," said Ehlers.

Hotzman hopes to publish the findings of her study within the next year.

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