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Dancing in the Desert

December 9, 2015

Portrait: Joel Torgeson

Portrait: Joel Torgeson
Photo by Jack Swift, CLAgency student

Joel has spent the last three years studying biological anthropology here at the University of Minnesota, so when given the opportunity to attend the Koobi Fora Field School in East Turkana, Kenya he was thrilled. “It’s very important to go out in the field and see where these things come from,” he said of fossil hominins.

For six weeks, Joel learned paleontology field methods and how to use fieldwork and research in tandem. Although he spent time learning to excavate, one of the main goals of the field school was to teach students how to connect their fieldwork to a research project. “Anyone can pick up a hammer, and a chisel, and dust pan and do some excavation, but thinking about research as research—not just something you’re doing—is important if you want to [work] in the field.”

Joel also had the opportunity to conduct some of his own research at the National Museums of Kenya, comparing rodent dentitions between Miocene sites. He spends a lot of his time in Pillsbury Hall working on rodent scans, so going abroad was vital to understanding the environmental context in which the rodents lived. “Until you actually get on the outcrops and walk around to see what it looks like… it would have been very difficult for me to understand.” In total, Joel spent about two and a half months in Kenya working on various field sites and projects.

When he isn’t researching, Joel spends his free time ballroom dancing and rock climbing. These activities are still tied to what Joel is interested in; anthropology, dancing, and rock climbing all explore the limits of human biology and physiology. Each one explores how movement and environment can affect our body’s morphology. “I have a more flexible vertebral column than most because of rotation around it in ballroom,” Joel explained.

Joel uses a similar analysis of how body form might inform diet and landscape to aid him in his anthropology research. By studying the shape of rodent dentition, Joel might learn where these rodents lived and what they ate. Just as human morphology informs us about whether our ancestors could climb trees or walk across the savannah, so too can teeth suggest the diets of their owners.

For the future, Joel is thinking about attending graduate school, either for a program with an emphasis in evolutionary biology, morphometrics, or archaeology. “My classwork in anthropology has given me a pretty good background and readied me to not only be in the field, but to work on going further in the discipline.”

This story was written by an undergraduate student account executive in CLAgency. Meet the team.