Night at the Smithsonian : Damien Huffer joins Real Scientists

After an epic week with astrophysicist Paul Sutter, we head back to Earth to meet Dr Damien Huffer (@DamienHuffer), anthropologist at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC. This week, Damien will take us in to the past and through the Smithsonian Institutions and talk about his work as a bioarchaeologist and physical

Dr Damien Huffer, Anthropologist (C) Damien Huffer

Dr Damien Huffer, Anthropologist (C) Damien Huffer

anthropologist. Damien researches spatial and temporal variation in diet and community structure in ancient Near-East and Mongolian populations. You may be familiar with carbon-dating; which tracks the quantities of the Carbon 14 isotope in sample to figure out their age.  But Carbon-14 isn’t the only isotope you can use to study the past. Damien uses the isotopic analysis of bones and teeth in numerous skeletons as part of his studies of ancient diets, combined with the “regular” type of data gleaned from bones (age, sex, health, injuries, cultural modifications, etc.). Damien is also active in the world of illicit antiquities trade scholarship, that is those archaeologists, criminologists, and lawyers who combine forces to figure out how and why the this particular illicit trade keeps going, where laws need work, and how it relates to other illegal trades like drugs or wildlife.

We asked Damien our usual set of questions and here he is in his own words:


I ended up in science primarily through a childhood infused with a heavy dose of the “chemistry” of cooking and baking (initially wanted to be a chef), and equally active exploration outdoors; rocks, bugs, nature, and especially fossils, growing up in Colorado and Arizona. Although I went into high school thinking I’d become a paleontologist due to the excitement of fieldwork, I have also been fascinated by the world’s cultural diversity. Being invited on my first archeological field school in high school made me realize that archeology and physical anthropology could combine my interests; science, fieldwork, and ancient/recent cultures.


Huffer at the machine


I was first exposed to physical anthropology and osteology as an undergrad. In classwork, visits to the local Medical Examiner’s office in Tucson, and further field schools, I came to appreciate just how much science can reveal about the lives of the dead, and how quickly this “bioarchaeology” was progressing. After a hiatus, I was able to return to and begin my own research in it half-way through grad school, where a fortunate accident of thesis timing required me to choose a new MA topic quickly and (amazingly!) get to participate in my first cemetery excavation in Vietnam in 2005 (and again in 2007). While not only providing enough data for both of my graduate degrees, this fieldwork, and other excavations and laboratory research afterwards, hooked me for life. My interest in antiquities trade research and outreach initially began as a grad school hobby via guest blogging, but has since expanded to active research and publication in its own right. I stay in my field because each new excavation and even each new skeleton is another window into the ancient past, and I feel honored to be set the challenge of using the science we have to reveal as much of their lives as possible.


I am currently a post-doctoral fellow at the Smithsonian Institution’s Museum Conservation Institute and department of Anthropology. I am currently conducting isotopic and bioarchaeological analyses on several skeletal assemblages from Jordan and Bahrain; asking questions about diet, migration and social structure across time w/in these marginal deserts, as well as specific case-studies. My active research interests currently involve isotope geochemistry (carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, strontium), osteology, bioarchaeology, the Southeast Asian and global antiquities trade, the global online trade in human remains, and new methods of archeological outreach. I am increasingly interested in new research that can apply isotopic and archeological science to understanding and better controlling the trade in cultural heritage.


I’ve found that family, friends, and the public to be the most intrigued by the power of my research to reconstruct many of the intricacies of daily life in the ancient past. The human body and its skeleton is arguably the most information dense “thing” that we leave behind, and the power of bioarchaeology is that data from the skeleton is combined with information of how individuals were treated at death to provide some of the most “humanistic” insights into individual and community life. For prehistoric times, bioarchaeological research can “populate” the big-picture past revealed by more traditional material culture based archeology. Also, the global illicit antiquities trade threatens the entire world’s heritage, and all scientific methods possible need to continuously be brought to bear to provide quantitative and real-time data crucial to criminologists and lawyers own work to understand criminal networks and reform/enforce weak laws.


Aside from my hobbies (see below), I have recently been guest lecturing and presenting in both the physical anthropology department’s osteology classes, as well as the Smithsonian-wide “Scientist is In!” and ‘HOT Topics in Human Origins” programs. These programs provide staff and visiting scientists a public forum on exhibit floors to set up education booths with visual aids to deliver content-specific cutting edge research simultaneously with visits to the museum.


I am a current practitioner of Taiko (Japanese-American ensemble) drumming, and have also practiced Capoeira and other martial arts off and on for many years. I read as much fiction and non-fiction as I can get my hands on and volunteer on local archeological excavations (too much time cooped up in a lab is dangerous). I also enjoy cooking, gaming, outdoor recreation and travel when possible, and spending time with family and friends.

How would you describe your ideal day off? (Scientists are people too!)

Sleeping in, perhaps exploring a new DC neighborhood or lounging by a pool, and a low-key meal and Netflix binge in the evening with my fiance.



Please welcome Damien Huffer to Real Scientists!

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