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Rachel Watkins Associate Professor and Department Chair, Anthropology Anthropology

Rachel Watkins
(202) 885-1663 (Office)
CAS | Anthropology
Hamilton Building 304
To schedule a meeting:
PhD, Anthropology, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

MAA, Applied Anthropology, University of Maryland, College Park

BA, Anthropology, Howard University

I am a biocultural anthropologist whose work focuses on African American biohistory and social history, bioanthropological research practices and histories of (US) American biological anthropology. Initially trained in skeletal biology, my work focused on looking at relationships between health, disease and social location in people whose remains are a part of the W. Montague Cobb anatomical collection, and the New York African Burial Ground. I situate this work within the scholar-activist tradition of deconstructing racialized interpretations of human biology, and the centering of Black bodies in constructing racial categories and hierarchies.

This research led to a broader interest in past and present studies of the human body as a ‘biological and social product’ within biological anthropology. As such, my current research and writing focuses on the use of African American skeletal remains and living bodies in the development of bioanthropological practices and racial formation.

My publications related to this work include:

2007 “Knowledge from the Margins: W. Montague Cobb´s Pioneering Research in Biocultural Anthropology,” American Anthropologist 109: 186-196.

2010 “Variation in Health and Socioeconomic Status within the W. Montague Cobb Skeletal Collection: Degenerative Joint Disease, Trauma and Cause of Death,” 2012: International Journal of Osteoarchaeology vol. 22: 22–44.

2012 “Biohistorical Narratives of Racial Difference in the American Negro: Notes toward a Nuanced History of American Physical Anthropology,” Current Anthropology 53: S196-S209.

2015 “Repositioning the Cobb Human Archive: The Merger of a Skeletal Collection and its Texts” (first author, co-authored with J. Muller). American Journal of Human Biology 27: 41–50. doi: 10.1002/ajhb.22650.

I am currently building on this work with a broader look at how Black bodies are positioned as biological and social products in biological anthropology – as researchers and subjects. A key area of concern is the continued dearth of POC and other minority researchers in the field despite robust critiques of scientific racism. This suggests the need for a closer examination of social relations in our field, for which Black feminist theory and critiques of science are an underutilized resource. I use the work of scholars such as Sylvia Wynter, Hortense Spillers and others to analyze the ways that scientific practices can move toward methodological and theoretical innovation - while maintaining epistemological underpinnings that render ideal physical and intellectual humanity as white, male, able-bodied, cisgendered and heterosexual. I use Black feminist critiques of science to identify supporting ideologies at sites of research, and also within narratives associated with this work.

While epistemological violence and colonized scholarship are typically framed as a “diversity and inclusion problem” for marginalized scholars, I bring attention to how these structural inequalities undermine intellectual rigor and development for everyone. The 80-plus years of scholar-activism in the Cobb Laboratory, where I began my journey as a bioanthropological researcher, is centered in these discussions.

Recent publications:

2018 “The Fate of Anatomical Collections in the US: Bioanthropological Investigations of Structural Violence” In Identified Skeletal Collections: The Testing Ground of Anthropology? Charlotte Henderson and Francisca Alves (eds). Oxford: Archaeopress, 169-186.

2018 Anatomical Collections as Bioanthropological Other: Some Considerations. In Bioarchaeological Analyses and Bodies: New ways of Knowing Anatomical and Skeletal Collections. Pam Stone, ed. New York: Springer, 27-48.

2020 “An Alter(ed)native Perspective on Historical Bioarchaeology. Historical Archaeology in press, 53(4).
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Although we know that race does not exist biologically, it continues to shape our understanding of human biological diversity - not to mention social organization, conflict and the distribution of resources and power. My research (and that of my bioanthropological colleagues) plays an important role in understanding the historical and current implications of biological constructions of race and how they continue to impact scientific practices.

I am committed to using my research and expertise to engage in interdisciplinary and public discussions about race, health disparities and science as a social practice. This includes speaking to elementary, middle and high school students, as well as other public speaking engagements. I also co-chaired the American Anthropological Association's Anthropologists Go Back to School (AGBTS) initiative with Dr. Kamela Heyward Rotimi. You can find links to conversations, podcasts and other talks via the following links:

Stanford series on Race in Science, Technology, and Medicine (Race in STM), October 2020 (link forthcoming)

Reclaiming the Ancestors: Indigenous and Black Perspectives on Repatriation, Human Rights, and Justice, September 2020.

AnthroBiology Podcast: History of Race/The State of Race in Biological Anthropology, February 2020.

AnthroBites: Scientific Racism. Cultural Anthropology podcast series, September 2017.

The Public Classroom @ Penn Museum: Science and Race: History, Use and Abuse. Class Title: Understanding the History of Science and Race on September 21, 2016.

Samuel Proctor Oral History Project, October 2013.

I teach Race and Racism, Human Origins, courses on race, biology and culture, social theory and human biology.

I stand with American University students in their battle against anti-Black racism - especially that targeting Black femmes - as well as their broader efforts toward addressing the structural manifestations of white supremacy and colonialism on this campus.
See Also
Anthropology Department
For the Media
To request an interview for a news story, call AU Communications at 202-885-5950 or submit a request.


Spring 2024

  • ANTH-899 Doctoral Dissertation

Partnerships & Affiliations

  • National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution
    Research Collaborator

  • Association of Black Anthropologists, American Anthropological Association
    Associate Editor, Transforming Anthropology

  • American Anthropological Association

  • Society for Applied Anthropology

  • Society for the Anthropology of North America

  • AU: Educational Policy Committee

  • AU Department of Anthropology: Undergraduate Studies Committee

Scholarly, Creative & Professional Activities

Research Interests

Keywords: African American biohistory and social history, skeletal biology, osteoarthritis, social and biological constructions of race, natural and social histories of disease, Washington, DC, health policy and health advocacyProjects:

  • The Role of African American Skeletal Remains in Constructing the Evolutionary Lineage of Race
  • Skeletal Indicators of Activity Stress and Social Inequality in the W. Montague Cobb Skeletal Collection
  • Connecting Skeletal Collections to their Descendant Communities: Political, Historical and Policy Implications

Honors, Awards, and Fellowships

  • Postdoctoral Fellowship, American Association of University Women Educational Foundation, Washington, D.C., AY 2005-2006.
  • Research Grant, The College of Arts and Sciences, American University, Washington, D.C., January 2004.

Media Appearances

  • Innaugural feature article in MiSciNet/Science online magazine, “Piecing Together the Past, ”December 2005.
  • January 2008 – Pacifica Radio, Commentary on Barack Obama’s visit to American University

Selected Publications

  • Laboratory Organization, Methods and Processes (co-authored with M. Blakey, M. Mack and K. Shujaa).  In New York African Burial Ground: Skeletal Biology Report.  M. Blakey and L. Rankin-Hill, eds. Department of Anthropology, Howard University, Washington, D.C. and the Institute for Historical Biology, Department of Anthropology, The College of William and Mary, Williamsburg, VA.  2004, pp. 113-144.
  • Skeletal Indicators of Work: Musculoskeletal, Arthritic and Traumatic Effects (co-authored with C.Wilczak, C. Null and M. Blakey).  In New York African Burial Ground: Skeletal Biology Report.  M. Blakey and L. Rankin-Hill, eds. Department of Anthropology, Howard University, Washington, D.C. and the Institute for Historical Biology, Department of Anthropology, The College of William and Mary, Williamsburg, VA. 2004, pp. 379-425.
  • “Knowledge from the Margins: W. Montague Cobb´s Pioneering Research in Biocultural Anthropology,” American Anthropologist 109: 186-196.
  • Diseases, Racial in  John Hartwell Moore. (ed.) The Encyclopedia of Race and Racism, Vol. 1. Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA, 2008. p407-412.
  • Forthcoming: “Tuskegee on the ‘Down Low’: A Bioculturalist Brings the Past into the Present” In E. Lewin and W. Leap (eds.) Out in Public, Rockwell Press.

Professional Presentations

  • Co-Chair of the session, Transforming Biological Anthropology: Interdisciplinary intersections and Theoretical Innovation. American Anthropological Association annual meeting, November 2006.
  • “’Poor’, ‘Marginal,’ ‘Urban’ and ‘Other’: The Racial Implications of Categorizing Human Skeletal Collections.” Presented at the American Anthropological Association annual meetings, November 2006.
  • Co Chair and Co-Organizer of the session, Revisiting the New York African Burial Ground Project: Noting Articulations with Research and Political Struggles in Washington, DC. American Anthropological Association annual meeting, November 2007 (Presidential session).
  • “What about the 'Bones in the Basement?': How the New York African Burial Ground Project Informs the Treatment and Analysis of Cadaver Populations.”  Presented at the American Anthropological Association annual meetings, November 2007.
  • “American Queer (and other) Legacies of Tuskegee.”  Presented at the American Anthropological Association annual meetings, Washington, DC, November 2005 (invited session).
  • Invited lecture at the University of Pennsylvania Department of Archaeology and Anthropology Colloquium Series.  April 2005.  Lecture Title: “The Health Consequences of Containment: Life in the City, 1890-1950.”
  • Guest lecture, Biology, Sex and Gender (WGST 350), Department of Women’s and Gender Studies, American University.  February 2005.  Lecture title: “The Five Sexes.”
  • Guest lecture, Archaeology and Politics (ANTH 531), Department of Anthropology, American University.  January 2005.  Lecture Title: “The Politics of the New York African Burial Ground.”
  • Invited lecture at the Washington Association of Professional Anthropologists meeting and colloquium December 2004.  Lecture Title:  “W. Montague Cobb: Washington Native and Scholar-activist.”
  • Invited keynote address at the Strengthening the Teaching of American History Conference, School of Education, American University.  December 2004.  Lecture Title: “The Role of Public Anthropology in American History Education.”