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Anthropology Professor Helps Solve Identity Mystery  

Photo of Rhonda Quinn teaching a classRhonda Quinn's future might have been sealed the moment she discovered the fate of an ancient Mayan in Guatemala. As a student, Quinn went on an archeological dig in the Central American country and encountered her first skeleton. Right away, she was hooked. "Wow," she remembers thinking. "This is how I want to get into the past."

Since then, Quinn, now an associate professor of anthropology at Seton Hall, has traveled the world and launched a nationally recognized academic career. Among her accomplishments: She worked on the team that discovered the world's oldest stone tools in Kenya. She has done fieldwork in such disparate places as the Turkana Basin of northern Kenya, the Solo River of Java, the Pacific Islands, and the Yucatan Peninsula. She has studied everything from early Pleistocene toolmakers to prehistoric Fijian diets and cannibalism, using a methodology she describes as "the geochemistry of bone, of teeth, of hair — from archeological and paleontological sites — to reconstruct the past."

Quinn used those reconstruction skills on a recent prominent case known as "The Woman in the Iron Coffin," which was featured in the PBS documentary Secrets of the Dead. In 2011, construction workers in Queens, New York, unearthed human remains that investigators thought were of a recent homicide victim. But as scientists, historians and archeologists dug deeper — literally and figuratively — they discovered the woman had been buried in an iron coffin of the kind used in the middle of the 19th century. PBS filmed the search for the mystery woman's identity in the documentary, which aired in October 2018.

Spearheaded by forensic archaeologist Scott Warnasch, the investigating team learned that the remains belonged to an African-American woman with smallpox named Martha Peterson, a domestic worker who was about 26 when she died, around 1851. 

Quinn analyzed a tooth and a hair sample from the woman utilizing geochemistry and helped determine that Peterson's diet was comparable to others born in the area after New York's Emancipation Act of 1799. Given these findings, Peterson likely was a free woman rather than a former or escaped slave. Quinn and anthropology student Monet Watson plan to present the findings at the annual conference of the Society for American Archaeology. 

Though the Peterson case had plenty of drama, Quinn loves all aspects of anthropology, from working in the field to the lab and classroom. "Fieldwork seems more exciting when you're sitting around at a dinner party, talking about driving a Land Rover out in the Rift Valley in Kenya. … But it's not just about fieldwork. Teaching is highly rewarding. You get those moments where the light bulbs go off for people. It's really about finding and building the confidence in students that they can learn almost anything."

With all her achievements, Quinn — who dreams of taking her two children to the spots she's previously explored — still savors her own "light bulb" moments, knowing the next challenge could be found thousands of miles away, or right on campus. Anthropology, the passion she stumbled upon with that very first skeleton, allows her to solve problems creatively. "You have to think about what every human being is capable of, which is just about everything," she says. "Creativity is not just within the realms of art and literature. You get to do this in science. And that's what I love about it."

This story originally appeared in the 2019 issue of Perspectives, the magazine of the College of Arts and Sciences.

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