Clemson University Feature Stories

Anthropology Professor Katherine Weisensee Shows Students the Marvels of Human History — and Solves a Crime or Two

Dr. Weisensee's passion for anthropology and love for bones began while on a school field trip.

It was one of the Upstate’s most gruesome crimes. A couple allegedly killed a woman, severed her hands and feet, then stuffed them in garbage bags and left them on two front porches.

As investigators scrambled to solve the crime, Greenville County’s Medical Examiner placed a call to someone he knew could help — Clemson University anthropologist Katherine Weisensee. In her Brackett Hall laboratory, Weisensee processed and cleaned the victim’s bones. On the wrist she found a small, grooved cut. That helped police narrow down the type of instrument used and ultimately, close in on the accused killers.

When not using her forensic skills to help solve murder cases, Weisensee teaches Clemson students, as an assistant professor in the department of sociology and anthropology. She joined the faculty four years ago, after earning a doctorate in biological anthropology at the University of Tennessee.

Although the majority of her workday takes place in a classroom, Weisensee enjoys the occasional foray into CSI-style forensics — even if it exposes her to a darker side of life. “It’s upsetting to see what people do to each other,” she says.

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In another recent case, Weisensee helped the medical examiner identify a skeleton that had been discovered by a man walking his dog in a wooded area. She determined that the victim was a female in her early thirties, and that she had been shot in the back of the head. Despite the depressing nature of such work, Weisensee finds it gratifying to help bring closure for grieving relatives.

“We’re providing a valuable service to the community.” Bones are much more than crime scene clues, though, according to Weisensee. They’re also windows into the past. When anthropologists study skeletal remains of earlier peoples, they learn much about a population.

“You can see when they went from being hunter-gatherers to agriculturalists,” says Weisensee. “You can see what kind of diet they had; you can see what kind of work they did; you can see when an epidemic swept in.”

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Weisensee fell in love with bones at the age of 12, when she visited the anthropology lab at Portland State University on a school field trip. At the end of the day, the students were ushered into the basement, where the university’s human bone collection was stored. There the youngsters were allowed to touch casts of ancient skeletons. “There’s that amazing moment when you realize you’re holding history in your hands. I want to give my students that moment.”

New Anthropology Major

If anthropology interests you, Clemson will offer a new anthropology degree beginning in the fall of 2013. The new major will be offered as a Bachelor of Science or a Bachelor of Arts through the sociology and anthropology department in the College of Business and Behavioral Science.

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“President Barker has noted that Clemson students tend to live behind a ‘palmetto curtain,’ rarely venturing beyond the social and cultural boundaries of their home state,” said Mike Coggeshall, professor of anthropology. “The anthropology major offers Clemson students a chance to escape that narrow focus and to embrace the global community across time and space.”

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Current anthropology minors and members of the Anthropology Club prompted sociology and anthropology to create the new major. With an increasingly international workforce, culture and marketplace, the skillset and knowledge base that an anthropology degree offers is in high demand.

“Anthropologists are needed in both corporations and nonprofits and are increasingly employed by technological, medical and governmental organizations,” says Mike Coggeshall, professor of anthropology. “This need for analysts and researchers who have strong critical-thinking skills partnered with an anthropological perspective will be increasingly important in our global economy.”

Details of the new  anthropology degree are available on the Clemson majors page: http://www.clemson.edu/majors/anthropology

For more additional information, contact Mike Coggeshall raucus@clemson.edu.

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