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Armelagos leaves a rich legacy of bio-archeology, teaching, friendship

George Armelagos, Goodrich C. White Distinguished Professor of Anthropology, helped solidify the University’s reputation as a national leader in the bio-cultural approach to anthropology. Photo by Bradd Shore.

George Armelagos, professor of anthropology at Emory University and one of the founders and leaders of the field of paleopathology, died May 15, just six days after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.

Armelagos, who was 77, was the son of Greek immigrants and grew up outside of Detroit. He came to Emory in 1993 as the Goodrich C. White Distinguished Professor of Anthropology, and helped solidify the University’s reputation as a national leader in the bio-cultural approach to anthropology. He continued to teach, mentor and publish until his death.

He is survived by his brothers, Nick and James Armelagos of Detroit, as well as numerous friends, former students and colleagues throughout the world.

"George was a joyous man who loved life, people and his work," said Peter Brown, Emory professor of anthropology and global health. "He taught all of us many things – humility, generosity, curiosity, hard work and the critical importance of social relationships."

He was also a prolific scientist, leaving behind 13 books and monographs and more than 250 journal articles.

"I enjoy what I’m doing," Armelagos said last year of his lengthy career. "It’s energizing. How could I get tired of it?"

While still a graduate student at the University of Colorado, Armelagos worked on a dig in Sudanese Nubia, including human remains that dated back 500 to 10,000 years.

As Armelagos put it: "Every skeleton has a story to tell. You can tell 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.

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. In 2010, he built on this work by collaborating with a chemist and leading expert in tetracycline and other antibiotics. The resulting chemical analysis of the mummy bones indicated that the ancient Nubians were deliberating brewing and consuming the therapeutic agent, providing the strongest evidence yet that the art of making antibiotics was common practice nearly 2,000 years ago.

One of Armelagos’ major contributions was this marriage of biology with archeology. He used this approach to ask "some of the really big questions of our time," said anthropologist Debra Martin in a 2013 article about his work. "He showed how the past sheds light not only on the origins of human conditions, but where we’re going. We see that racism, for example, is as deeply embedded in human behavior as it’s ever been, and yet it’s not in our biology or genes. It’s in the way that we organize ourselves culturally that we create some of these problems around race, nutrition, health and violence."

Martin, a former student of Armelagos, is now a professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

Armelagos made major contributions to our understanding of the evolutionary history of infectious diseases like syphilis. He was also 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.

In addition to writing about food, he was an accomplished chef who loved to cook gourmet meals for his students and turned the dining table of his home into an extension of the classroom.

Armelagos won the highest honors for his scholarship and service to anthropology, including the Viking Medal from the Wenner-Gren Foundation, the Charles Darwin Award for Lifetime Achievement to Biological Anthropology from the American Association of Physical Anthropologists, and the Franz Boas Award for Exemplary Service to Anthropology from the American Anthropological Association. In addition to Emory, where he served as chair of the Department of Anthropology from 2003 to 2009, his career included teaching positions at the University of Utah, the University of Massachusetts (Amherst) and the University of Florida.

Armelagos taught thousands of undergraduates and hundreds of graduate students. At the meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists in 2013, former students and colleagues gathered with Armelagos for a day-long session devoted to his research and mentorship — and a bit of roasting related to his often mischievous sense of humor.

Armelagos loved to give students mementos, like his famous t-shirts imprinted with "Bone to be Wild" and a dancing skeleton.

He was also well-known for his collection of air-sickness bags, amassed during his early days in the field when he would often get sick on the bumpy flights of small planes. He displayed some of his favorites in the anthropology lab, like one with a picture of a kangaroo holding open her pouch with the caption: "For that clean feeling."

He occasionally used one of his hundreds of air-sick bags to bring food to work. "No one has ever stolen my lunch," he said.

A private interment service will be held near St. Catherine’s Island, Georgia. A public memorial of his life and work will be held at Emory on Friday, Aug. 29.

With his estate, Armelagos endowed funds to benefit scholarship at Emory, the University of Massachusetts, and the University of Colorado. In lieu of flowers, he requested that contributions be made to these endowments, including the Armelagos-Brown Bio-Cultural Lecture and the Armelagos Graduate Teaching Award.

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