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Richard Sutter - Anthropology

From getting dirty while digging up bones to sitting in an office reading about power dynamics in ancient societies, the Department of Anthropology’s Professor and Chair Richard Sutter does it all. His specialty—bioarchaeology—straddles the sub-disciplines of archaeology and bioanthropology. Sutter’s work has many layers: he excavates skeletal remains, analyzes them using genetic modeling, then draws heavily from social theories for his conclusions. Currently, Sutter is excavating and analyzing skeletal remains of a South American people called the Moche, who existed between 200AD and 950AD.

Sutter’s interest in blending biological research methods with social theory stems partly from his experience as an environmental biochemistry and physiology major prior to switching to anthropology. As a physiology major, he studied whole body responses to changes in environmental conditions: “I felt that understanding the whole system and how the different parts interacted was better than focusing on one system. But then I took an anthropology course, and I realized that it’s not only the whole body system, but how the culture impacts it and how human behavior impacts it, how the environment impacts physiological responses. That was the trigger that sent me down the dark path of anthropology.”

While many believe that anthropological research is primarily theoretical, studies like Sutter’s on the Moche tribes of South America are relevant or related to multiple modern problems. The Moche were an early complex society, and one of the things emerging from Sutter’s research is that they are comparable to present groups of individuals who do not belong to an established state and attempt to use violence to establish influence, like ISIS. Because the Moche had not developed the infrastructure necessary to keep a state going, they had to maintain control of new territories militarily. So they focused on conquering religious or other culturally significant locations rather than entire territories. As Sutter explains, “This is very similar to what we see with nonstate actors and terrorist organizations like ISIS. They have very public and very spectacular forms of violence, and we know that the Moche did this. They show us this in the iconography on their pottery and in the friezes on their mud-brick pyramids. It’s all about bloodbath and violence and executing captured prisoners.” Such public spectacles, Sutter suggests, were a form of intimidation and suppression commonly used by weak states and non-state actors. Sutter hopes to expand his research in collaboration with department colleague, Professor Lawrence Kuznar, who studies conflict prediction models and works with the Pentagon as an ISIS analyst.

As chair of the anthropology department, Sutter also mentors students and creates opportunities for them. He has taken a number of students to different museums and field schools across the United States and South America. One student who traveled with him to a field school in Peru, Tanvi Chhatiawala (featured in our Major Factor series), wrote a paper based on research data she collected on that trip that will be published in the edited volume, Biological Distance Analysis: Forensic and Bioarchaeological Perspectives in August 2016. Sutter plans to continue providing field work opportunities for students. In summer 2017, he hopes to take students to a field school to San Jose de Moro, Peru, where he is senior researcher on the excavation project.

He also shares his expertise with the community in many ways. Sutter is on Science Central's Board of Directors and its Marketing, Development, and Communications committee. In this capacity, he helps bring expert panelists from IPFW to Science Central to speak on issues ranging from the development of science fiction to an evening envisioning a zombie apocalypse. He also hopes to develop internship opportunities for anthropology majors so that students can gain experience before graduation and share their passion for research with future anthropologists.

To learn more about Sutter’s research on the Moche and others, see his Faculty in Focus video. For more on the Department of Anthropology, see their website.