Interview with Ronika Power

The biocultural archaeologist talks about the lessons to be learned from Neolithic catastrophes and the ethical responsibilities of being ‘doctor to the dead’

August 1, 2019
Macquarie University bioarchaeologist Ronika Power

Ronika Power is an associate professor of bioarchaeology at Sydney’s Macquarie University, deputy director of the Centre for Ancient Cultural Heritage and the Environment, and an honorary research fellow of the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research at the University of Cambridge. In June she was named winner of the 2019 Max Crawford Medal, billed as “Australia’s most prestigious award for achievement and promise in the humanities”.

Where and when were you born, and how has it shaped you?
The mid-1970s in Sydney’s western suburbs. I was obsessed with pyramids, ancient Egypt and mummies before I even went to primary school.

What does your work involve?
I focus on data derived from the scientific analysis of human skeletal and mummified remains, and interpret that data – using philosophy, history and historiography – in conjunction with every other available aspect of the archaeological record. Material culture, tomb architecture, texts, grave goods – I bring it all together to form a more holistic understanding of the lived experiences of past populations.

Why should policymakers take notice of old bones?
The bones don’t lie. Humans have an extraordinary capacity to remember, but what confounds me more than anything is our capacity to forget. We must think about what sort of world we want to leave for our children and grandchildren. We have a historical record of what happens when humans are placed under environmental pressure, resource depletion and stress.

Much of your work centres on Malta. Why?
I’m part of a major international project that was funded by the European Research Council, called FRAGSUS. It’s looking at questions of fragility and sustainability in restricted island environments, using this tiny archipelago in the Mediterranean as a laboratory. Malta was subjected to environmental and climate change in the European Bronze Age – soil erosion and nutrient depletion as a result of the changing climate and exploitation of the environment. In about 2,500 BC we see a spike in all the skeletal indicators for stress. Their bodies are showing us that things don’t go well when humans exhaust their environment.

What’s the relevance of Neolithic Malta to the 21st-century world?
Increasing climatic instability preceded that time, from about 4,500-3,700 BC. We’re also seeing an increase in aridity and gradual decreases in summer moisture availability. We see this equated in dry phases across the western and eastern Mediterranean, in combination with rising sea levels. In the case of Malta, we see a tiny geographic space operating with a population that was clearly not sustainable and increasingly isolated because of rising sea levels.

Does all your work focus on early societies?
My work takes us back even before society. One of the highlights of my career so far extends back 10,000 years. I was part of a team that characterised the earliest evidence for inter-group violence among hunter-gatherer populations, in a place called Nataruk on the ancient shorelines of Lake Turkana in Kenya. They were faced with resource depletion in a changing environment – the same sort of thing that we saw in Malta and that we’re seeing today. We found the remains of at least 27 individuals, with 10 of the 12 articulated skeletons showing signs of violent death. It seems they were massacred for resource access. We saw signs of projectile wounds and the sorts of blunt force trauma that can only come from hand-to-hand combat. Nobody was spared. We have the remains of a woman in the later stages of pregnancy. I’ve examined her bones and the bones of the fetus we found in her abdominal cavity. She was bound and killed. This can teach us so much about the lengths humans are prepared to go to when they are faced with having to feed their families and claim their territorial spaces.

Did you feel personally involved with the victims?
How could I not? It is the most extraordinary privilege to engage with the remains of any individual. I have an ethical responsibility to ensure that the individuals I work with are treated with as much dignity and respect as any living person. We’re detectives trying to piece together ancient stories, often in the absence of historical text. Texts also have their own burdens of proof; their own biases. But it is challenging when all you have are a few bone fragments and the biological evidence they contain.

What’s the best thing about your work?
I have the great privilege of being a teacher. Second to being a parent, it’s the most important job in the world.

What’s the future of interdisciplinary research?
I am an eternal optimist. I believe we will be able to demonstrate the utility – in fact, the essential nature – of interdisciplinary research, and get the support we need from the government. We need to abandon the siloed approach to policymaking, to funding, that separates STEM and the humanities, arts and social sciences (HASS).

Australia’s recent research assessment exercise, ERA, suggested that the number of humanities academics is declining. Does that worry you?
It concerns me greatly. What we’re seeing in the statistics is the reflection of the goalposts that have been set for us. Of course we’re going to see reduced employment in HASS if it is evaluated almost automatically as “less than” STEM. The humanities, arts and social sciences employ about half of Australia’s researchers and educate almost 61 per cent of university students. They bring together so many important skill sets for the future. We’re beginning to see what happens when those outputs are unappreciated.

If you were higher education minister for a day, what would you do?
Return the A$4.2 million [£2.3 million] stripped from ARC research funding to the humanities, and set a platform that encourages, resources and supports interdisciplinary research.


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Janelle Wheat is the new pro vice-chancellor, learning and teaching, at Charles Sturt University. Professor Wheat returns to Charles Sturt from the University of New South Wales, where she held the role of deputy dean (education) in the Faculty of Science.

Three faculty members at Yale University have been appointed to endowed professorships. Amy Arnsten has been named Albert E. Kent professor of neuroscience and of psychology, while Richard Bucala has been appointed Waldemar Von Zedtwitz professor of medicine, pathology, and epidemiology and public health. Joy Hirsch has been named Elizabeth Mears and House Jameson professor of psychiatry, of comparative medicine, and of neuroscience.

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