Photograph by O. Louis Mazzatenta
Photograph by Rick Zhang
Ancient skulls talk to Christine Lee. They tell stories of long-forgotten cultures, conflicts, lifestyles, and love affairs. As a bio-archaeologist, Lee combines physical anthropology and archaeology to study human remains, coaxing secrets from skeletons and civilizations millennia old.
For Lee, unraveling puzzles from the past has direct relevance to the present. She hopes her research can be a bridge between two places she calls home: The United States where she was born, raised, and educated, and China, where she works.
“Many Westerners think China is homogeneous,” she explains. “They see movie stereotypes and imagine Chinese as strange, mysterious, dangerous. Meanwhile in China, people think Americans are all like TV sitcom characters. I hope my presence here can help advance understanding and show how truly diverse both cultures are.”
Exploring diversity is at the core of Lee’s archaeological research, and often her search for truth begins with a tooth. Dental anthropology can reveal everything from population origin and history to migration and intermarriage.
“If a population intermarried for long enough in one location, I can note the percentage of certain dental attributes, such as missing third molars, shovel-shaped incisors, or an extra bump on a particular tooth " she says. "Comparing these percentages with those of surrounding cities shows how genetically linked populations were, if there was significant intermarriage, or total isolation. Teeth also give me clues to economic status. The wealthy elite’s diet was more processed, so their teeth are in better condition. Lower classes had more grit, sand, grass, and contaminants in their diet, so teeth show more wear.”
An entire skeleton yields even more information. “Bones can tell me the person’s sex, age, and whether they worked hard or had a fairly easy life. Were they right- or left-handed, did they walk long distances, ride horses, or spend lots of time kneeling? Did they have arthritis, leprosy, tuberculosis? Did they step on a plow, get kicked by a cow, fall off a horse, break their nose in a fight, battle in war? Bones show me all this and more.”
Lee hopes her discoveries can give China’s people a greater sense of their own cultural identity and past, things she observes have been lost during recent and rapid changes in Chinese society.
Her personal quest for identity has also been a struggle. Her parents came from Taiwan to pursue graduate degrees at the invitation of the U.S. government, but Lee experienced childhood as an outsider, the lone Asian American in her suburban Texas school. “For years I felt lost, longed to fit in, and was desperate for people to forget I was Asian," she says.
Lee first met people from different socio-economic classes and ethnicities at the University of Texas, Austin. “So many of them were secure with who they were. For the first time I realized that being Asian American was not bad; that diversity makes this country great.”
Even as a child Lee was fascinated with identifying and reconstructing bones from fried chicken dinners and Thanksgiving turkeys. “Today I constantly try to figure out what the skeletons I study looked like in real life. Traveling across China, I try to match their faces with people I see, so they aren’t just objects. Before working here I really didn’t understand how diverse China’s history is,” she says.
In Mongolia, she excavated a royal cemetery for the Xiongnu people, those "barbarians" who prompted China to build a 2,000-mile-long (3,200-kilometer-long) wall. Remains she examined there underscored cultural differences. “The ancestors of today’s Mongolians rode horses, ate meat, and had a certain cowboy wildness compared to the rigid society and structure on the other side of the Great Wall.”
In China’s southernmost region, Lee unearthed yet another distinct culture, the Dian. Remains revealed a society of agriculturalists and fishermen, living in a settled city, with dramatically different burial customs. “Elsewhere individuals were buried alone in a formal, reverential way, but here we’d find 20 skulls piled in together. Same time period, yet totally different traditions.”
Lee has plans to explore tombs in Gansu dating from 2,000 B.C. “Legend has it that the Chinese government moved tens of thousands of people to defend this border, assimilating by intermarriage. I’d like to do chemical analysis on bones there to see if this is true or a myth.”
At each site, Lee’s passion is professional, yet personal. “It’s amazing to look at a skull and realize I’m the first person to see that face in 2,000 years. They’ve been plowed under, covered by buildings, forgotten. Nobody knows their city, their name, or what culture they’re from. So it’s like I’m saying to them, ‘Don’t worry. I will tell the world about you, publish about you, describe what your life was like, and prove it had meaning.’”
Latest Explorer News
What are Christine Lee and the rest of the National Geographic Explorers up to? Meet the E-Team and learn about their projects in this interactive mural.
In Their Words
I hope my findings help show the world the richness and diversity of China—the many different people, strong cultures, and fascinating histories it holds.
Dr. Fredrik Hiebert, archaeologist and explorer, traces ancient trade routes.
Our Explorers in Action
Meet female explorers who have pushed the limits in adventure, science, and more.