Exploring human truths at the intersection of biology and anthropology
Even as a kid, Nicholas Collyge was fascinated by anthropology. Growing up in northwest Arkansas he’d devour books about the mythologies of different civilizations, trying to learn as much as he could about the world’s cultures and peoples.
“It really appealed to me,” he says. “Anthropology just seemed like a field where there was a potential to bring about mutual understanding and to better understand people and solve problems.”
At the same time, he was also intrigued by the mysteries of evolutionary biology and genetics. He was able to merge those interests at Yale, where he immersed himself in the study of biological anthropology, a scientific discipline that explores human biology, evolution, and how cultural practices can influence biological responses. By studying human remains, for instance, biological anthropologists can reveal insights into the diets of past civilizations and occurrences of ancient diseases.
This kind of work, Collyge realized, might shed new light on truths about humankind’s past and future.
“I’d always grown up with an awareness that historical texts could be a little biased in one direction or another,” he says. “It struck me that [this discipline] might offer an incredible way to get closer to the truth.”
As a Yale student, Collyge was able to gain hands-on experience in the field. For his thesis project, for instance, he examined the dental health of individuals believed to have lived during the Revolutionary War era and whose remains were found near known battle sites. By evaluating whether their oral health was consistent with what is known about the diets and lifestyles of soldiers during that era, he hoped to determine whether they were likely combatants. (The research, for which he’ll receive authorship credit, will soon be published.)
A Cherokee, he also became involved in social activism while at Yale, including on Indigenous issues. For instance, Collyge, who is a resident of Jonathan Edwards College, became involved in the growing conversation about the ethics of studying Indigenous DNA, and how archeological research at Indigenous sites can be done in ways that are responsible, respectful, and inclusive. And working with Native and Indigenous Student Association at Yale (NISAY), he worked to raise awareness of Indigenous social issues, like the Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women, Girls, and Two-Spirit (MMIWG2S) epidemic, and the pending U.S. Supreme Case Haaland v. Brackeen, which involves a challenge by three states of the Indian Child Welfare Act.
He’ll eventually pursue a Ph.D. in some facet of biological anthropology, though he admits he’s torn between the kind of work that would take him into the field and research that would be more focused on genetic analysis. For now, he’s concentrating on finding work that will help him discover which path is best for him.
This summer, for instance, he’ll join an archaeological dig in Mongolia, where researchers are studying a civilization that once existed in the grasslands of the Eastern Mongolian Steppes.
Such opportunities to develop his field skills were harder to come by during the pandemic. The global crisis, however, did allow him to hone other skills, such as helping the Museum of Native American History in his home state respond to the challenges of the COVID era, including the creation of virtual exhibits. Later, as a summer intern at the Yale Peabody Museum, he helped create 3D models of anthropological artifacts by helping test a prototype photogrammetry machine.
“That was pretty exciting, because I got a better insight into how museums use different technologies to do the work they do,” he said. “If it weren’t for the pandemic, I probably would have never done that.”