Friday, July 18, 2008

Corn Today; Hair Tomorrow

Recently, my monthly alumni enewsletter arrived in my inbox with the funnest article and associated video. The piece explores the work of "The Hair Detective", an organic chemist at the University of Virginia (Go 'Hoos!). Stephen Macko uses hair samples to determine the probable diet of an individual. Among his fascinating finds are the differences to be found between the Moche ruling elite versus their sacrificial victims. It seems protein analysis of the remains of the Moche elite shows a diet marked by the heavy consumption of corn-based animal protein (llama) whereas the supposed sacrificial victims found at Moche sites show more extensive consumption of aquatic proteins, thus, arguing for a coastal origin of these individuals. Different diets, different populations? Or Marie Antoinette, saying "let them eat fish"? Food for thought.

Here is the You Tube description of his work:

Among the dinosaur bones and 4.5-billion-year-old meteorites on the shelves of Stephen Macko's office are tiny plastic containers that hold hair samples from the likes of Edgar Allan Poe, George Washington, Oetzi the iceman and Diane Sawyer.

An odd assembly, perhaps, but locked within each strand are clues about appetites both ancient and modern. Hair functions as a nuanced physical record of diet over time, "much like a tape recording," says Macko, a U.Va. professor of environmental sciences. He applies the tools of organic chemistry to solve mysteries in fields as diverse as anthropology, nutrition and agricultural policy. How did the lifestyles of ancient Egyptian nobility differ from the lower classes? How accurate are the ingredient lists on product labels? Did Poe's peculiar poetry arise from pollutants in the air he was breathing? Do Americans eat too much corn?
For the full article (The UVAMagazine) click here and enjoy. Or go straight to the video on You Tube.

The whole article conjures up such fond memories of trekking to Clark Hall (one of the more interesting building on campus--once you become desensitized to Jefferson's Rotunda and the beauties of the Lawn) to nervously try to successfully pass the environmental science classes that my adviser, Steve Plog, recommended I take. Principles of Ecology nearly did me in. But what a lovely experience to see the genuine joy these scientists take in using their skill set to advance knowledge outside their own disciplines. True academic camaraderie and the joy of learning.

File this one under Inspirational Bits and Teachable Moments

Follow the article through to the end and you will discover that, today, we eat corn and high fructose corn syrup, and more corn. It would appear that we are comprised almost entirely of corn. How many corny jokes am I avoiding? On the strength of this piece, I have ordered the documentary King Corn. It comes highly recommended from a variety of sources. More after viewing.

No comments: