President Brian Sandoval hosts Foundation Professor of Anthropology Richard Scott in this ninth episode of Sagebrushers. They chat about Scott’s research on tooth and root morphology and one of his favorite memories of likely examining the remains of Norse explorer, Erik the Red, his wife Þjódhild and his son and well-known Icelandic explorer, Leif Erikson. Scott also discusses how he came to study biological anthropology and his favorite spot on campus, the faculty dining lounge. Sagebrushers is available on Spotify, Apple Podcasts and other major podcast platforms, with a new episode every month.
Sagebrushers – Ep. 9 – Dr. Richard Scott
Join host President Brian Sandoval as he and Foundation Professor of Anthropology Richard Scott discuss Scott’s research focus on teeth, his recent trip to study medieval skeletons in Hungary and his experience of likely examining the remains of Norse explorer, Erik the Red, his wife Þjódhild and his son and well-known Icelandic explorer, Leif Erikson.
President Brian Sandoval: Welcome to Sagebrushers, the podcast of the University of Nevada, Reno. I'm Brian Sandoval. I'm a proud graduate and president of the University of Nevada, Reno and I'm your host of Sagebrushers. Each month at Sagebrushers, which by the way was our University's first nickname, we take a closer look at the people, history and future of our University. We explain why the University, ever since its founding in Elko in 1874, has been about so much more than ourselves and why we remain Nevada's best experiment in understanding who we are and what we're capable of achieving.
Today's podcast is being recorded at the Reynolds School of Journalism on our University's campus. In this episode of Sagebrushers, we welcome Dr. Richard Scott, a foundation professor of anthropology at the University of Nevada, Reno. Dr. Scott earned his B.A. and Ph.D. degrees in anthropology at Arizona State University. After completing his degree, he taught at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks from 1973 to 1997. He took a short-lived retirement before resuming his academic career at the University of Nevada, Reno in 2001.
His specialty is dental anthropology, with a focus on human tooth crown and root morphology. Geographically, he has worked in the American Southwest, Alaska, the North Atlantic, Spain and Hungary. I got the chance to visit with Dr. Scott and see his lab when I was in Budapest this summer and I look forward to talking more about his research today. Dr. Scott, welcome to Sagebrushers.
Dr. Richard Scott: Thank you, Brian.
President Brian Sandoval: I'm really pleased and honored to have you as a guest and so much to talk about, but how did you first become interested in the field of anthropology?
Dr. Richard Scott: Well, I need to give you just a little background on that because I grew up in eastern Colorado on a farm, and my graduating class had 15 individuals. I can assure you that I never even heard the word anthropology when I was going to high school or grade school, so the only educated person in my family was a pharmacist. My dad knew I did not want to be a farmer, so he thought, ‘well, you could be a pharmacist.’ So, I started off majoring in chemistry, and I was pretty good at chemistry, and I started my freshman year at ASU. I discovered that I had trouble balancing molar equations in stoichiometry. Oh, it was frustrating.
But my second semester, I took a course in anthropology –– just introduction to anthropology –– and I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, this is what I've been looking for.’ It's a blend of history and science, so I did my undergraduate work. The next four years, I took fifteen courses in anthropology, five in social, five in biological and five in archaeology. In my senior year, I applied to a number of graduate schools to become a southwestern archaeologist, and that's when a very charismatic professor took me under his wing and slowly, but surely, got me into the world of teeth.
The clinching thing to make me continue graduate school, studying teeth, was when he got me a four-year genetics fellowship, and I could not turn that down after my folks had funded my undergraduate education. So, I was working on the genetics of tooth crown and root morphology for the next five years until I finished my Ph.D.
President Brian Sandoval: That's a fascinating story and really, an example of how a faculty member can really inspire a student. I think it's incredible. But tell us a little more about what teeth molar morphology is and what you see and what you did learn when you studied that.
Dr. Richard Scott: Teeth like I say, they were not my first love, but once I started working with them, the tremendous utility of teeth became apparent. Whenever I teach dental anthropology, I teach my students about the four “ilities” of teeth. The first is preservability –– the enamel on the tooth crown is almost entirely inorganic and preserves extremely well. The early mammal-like reptiles are known almost exclusively from teeth. Second is heritability –– teeth are under very strong genetic control. The third is variability –– they show a tremendous amount of variation in size, morphology and all sorts of things. Then finally, a very important part of teeth is observability –– teeth are the only hard part of the skeleton that you can observe in the living. So, in many cases, I've studied thousands of dental casts and I've studied thousands of skeletons. On a few occasions, I've been able to study living and prehistoric populations in the same geographic area.
President Brian Sandoval: Yeah, and that's incredible. So, if you study a skull or teeth, you could determine how they lived and what kind of health issues they may have had and what they perhaps had encountered during their lifetime.
Dr. Richard Scott: Yeah. The interesting thing about teeth, the observability also means that they're the only part of the skeleton directly exposed to the environment. Now, that's why we have dentists because with the Industrial Revolution and the development of refined sugars or carbohydrates, that's when dental caries went off the chart and that was only within the last couple hundred years.
Also, tooth crowding –– which is basically what orthodontists make a living correcting –– was almost unknown in the earlier human record. It only started to some extent with the Neolithic revolution when people started eating more refined foods. But, even in the Hungarians, we were looking at, and those dated from about 500 A.D. to about 1700, there was hardly any tooth crowding at all. It's basically a reflection of the nature of their diet, but you're right –– you can see all kinds of things from teeth. You can see the underlying genetics structures in terms of morphology, size and number, but you can also see health indicators like dental caries, period auto disease, malocclusion, things of that nature.
President Brian Sandoval: We’ll get to Hungary. You've done work all over the world. So, can you talk a little about some of the other places where you've been and what you've studied?
Dr. Richard Scott: Well, sometimes people ask me what my favorite project of all time was, and I go back to the Greenlandic Norse because they're so unique. I looked at every skeleton ever recovered of the Greenlandic Norse in Copenhagen in 1986 and that includes the churchyard at Þjódhild Church. Þjódhild was Erik the Red's wife, and she cajoled him into building a church. See, the Vikings were pagans up until 1000 A.D. when Leif Erikson brought priests from Trondheim to Greenland. But Erik the Red was a pagan to the end, but he still had this church constructed for his wife and there were 144 skeletons around that church, and I almost certainly studied the skeletons of Erik the Red and Leif Erikson and Þjódhild, but I'm not sure exactly who they were. I also looked at Norwegians and Icelanders and Danish Vikings just for comparative perspective.
President Brian Sandoval: I mean, I can’t get over the fact that you may have studied Erik the Red. I mean, that's one of the most famous people, and Leif Erikson, you know, some of the two most famous people in history. What did it tell you about their lives and what they consumed?
Dr. Richard Scott: I'll tell you the most interesting thing I found though. I got into this because an archaeologist from Cooney in New York came and gave a talk at the Geophysical Institute of Fairbanks and he described how in Greenland the winters were, even tough back then and they would put the cows and sheep in a barn. He said in the spring, they'd break a hole in the barn and carry the cows out. Now, I grew up on a farm and I was thinking, ‘I wasn't carrying any cows out of my barn.’ I mean, they weigh about 1,000 to 1,200 pounds and then it dawned on me –– Shetland Ponies. You know, the Shetland Islands were one of the places inhabited by the Norse during the Middle Ages and basically, these cows had greatly reduced body size.
So, I wondered if that same thing had impacted the people because as you might know, the Greenlandic Norse disappeared entirely in the 15th century, and when I actually studied a temporal series from the founding population to a late medieval population and over the course of time, tooth size decreased, brain size decreased, body size decreased. So, we were seeing in a population the same kinds of trends that they saw in livestock in the North Atlantic. It's pretty interesting. The last time I was there, they showed me the individual that might have been the last Norseman and it was a sad thing.
President Brian Sandoval: Oh, that's fascinating. So, let's move back to Hungary and briefly describe how you got there and what was the ask and what you studied there?
Dr. Richard Scott: Well, I was in Zagreb. I'm a visiting professor in the dental school there. One of the talks I gave, an anthropologist came up to me and said, ‘Did you know there are 50,000 skeletons in Budapest?’ I said, ‘No, I had no idea.’ So, I contacted them and established relationships, and I went with a graduate student for the first time in 2019. The reason I was interested in Hungary is that that population speaks Finno-Ugrain, which is a non-Indo-European population, and I've long been interested in non-Indo-European populations.
Like the first group I studied, which was a natural for UNR, was the Basques. So, I went to Basque country in 2005, 2007 and 2008 and studied again, this was one where I studied both living Basques and Medieval Basques and that was very, very interesting. Then for Hungary, Hungary is an incredibly fascinating place because it's been basically a crossroads of human history. I mean, things go way back into the paleolithic, there were Neanderthals there, of course, but then into more modern times, the Huns came through in the 5th century, and they were very short-lived.
But, after that, the Carpathian Basin –– which basically envelops this large plain –– was the destination or crossroads for many populations. After the Huns left, the Gepids were there, and then they were squeezed out by the Avars and the Lombards. Then, in the 10th century, the Magyars came in and the Magyars were more horse nomads from the Asian Plain. One thing that we're looking at: were these mass migrations into Hungary or was it primarily a movement of elites and Hungarian population pretty much remained the same? So, what we're looking at is tooth ground and root morphology to determine that particular question and other questions of Hungarian population history.
President Brian Sandoval: I mean, it's incredibly fascinating. And what a gift to the Hungarians to have someone –– you know –– of your reputation and experience to do that. So, let's move on. I want to switch gears a little bit.
Dr. Richard Scott: Sure.
President Brian Sandoval: I mean, we've had you on the campus for more than 20 years, which is, as I said, a gift to our campus and the students. What's your fondest memory?
Dr. Richard Scott: Needless to say, I have many fond memories. I would say the top three –– I have to have three, Brian, I can't just have one.
You know, I came here as a lecturer in 2001. When I was hired on a tenure track line as a brand-new assistant professor in 2004, I was very happy to get back on track. Then, when I hooded my first Ph.D. student, that was a very proud moment, and then in 2016, when I became a foundation professor, that was pretty nice too. One of life's little ironies, Brian, is that you signed the document, as you were governor back then.
President Brian Sandoval: Wow. Small world. Isn’t it?
Dr. Richard Scott: Yeah, it is. Tremendous memories and when I got here, there had never been a graduate student in biological anthropology. As soon as I became tenure track, I started accepting biologic-anthro grad students, and then in 2014, we hired another biological anthropologist. Then in 2016, another one, and now we have a booming program where I think we have maybe two dozen Ph.D. students in biological anthropology. So, that's one thing I am really proud about.
President Brian Sandoval: You should be, and I had the opportunity to meet some of your graduate students in Hungary, and they were outstanding. So, we're almost out of time. I have to ask – do you have a favorite spot on campus?
Dr. Richard Scott: Well, Brian, on those rare occasions when I get out of my office and lab, it has to be the new faculty lounge. I will have to admit, I'm not too crazy about the new name. I submitted a name that I thought was great, but my suggestion was “Food for Thought” and that didn't make the final cut, but it is a fantastic place, and your next guest and I have burned up two tickets last year going to that lounge and so, I highly recommend it.
President Brian Sandoval: Yeah, and thank you. That faculty lounge is accomplishing exactly what we thought. It's in the Knowledge Center, but it brings faculty from all the different disciplines where they may not have otherwise had an opportunity to meet. It really creates great conversation.
Well, unfortunately, that's all the time we have for this episode of Sagebrushers. Thank you, thank you, thank you for joining us, Dr. Scott. It really is a privilege to chat with you.
Dr. Richard Scott: It's been my pleasure, Brian. Thank you.
President Brian Sandoval: Next month, we will bring you another episode of Sagebrushers and continue to tell the stories that make our University special and unique. Until then, I'm University President Brian Sandoval, and go Pack.