If bones could talk, what would they say? Christine Lee could tell you—because bones DO talk to her. Through studying skeletal remains, Lee can tell you if the person was male or female, rich or poor, what they did for a living, and even if they were right- or left-handed! Lee is unique in her field because of her focus on the diversity of ancient ethnicities and cultures in modern day China and Mongolia.
Lee’s fascination with skeletons started at a young age. Whenever her parents would cook a whole chicken or turkey, she would not let anyone eat until she had identified all of the parts, and she would reconstruct the bird from the bones after everyone was done eating. It took longer for her to become interested in the cultural side of her work. As one of just a few Asian students at her school in Texas, Lee ignored her Asian heritage because she wanted to fit in. But her experiences in college opened her up to exploring her culture. She met a wide variety of students from diverse backgrounds, including a wide variety of Asians and Asian-Americans, who were curious to learn more about their ancestral heritage. At this time, she discovered the field of bioarchaeology. Bioarchaeology blends biology and archaeology to recreate the lives of ancient populations, using clues about their daily lives and roles.
After college, she combined her interests in diversity and culture with the study of ancient people and became a trailblazer in her field. Her interest in her heritage led her to do research in East Asia, specifically China and Mongolia. She focused on the many different ethnic groups that made ancient China and Mongolia diverse empires. Each of these ethnic groups had different languages, cultures, and religions, despite being citizens of larger empires. For example, while researching elite Xiongnu, Xianbei, and Turkic burials in Mongolia, she discovered that unlike the Chinese, the women rode horses and practiced archery, much like in the Ballad of Mulan. At an archaeological excavation in southern China, the Dian culture buried their dead in a unique way. While the Chinese traditionally buried people individually, the Dian practiced secondary burial, where many individuals (more than 20) are collected and buried together. Lee has also researched the history and biomechanical consequences of foot-binding, noting key shifting points when the practice went from a Chinese cultural practice among the nobility then spread to all socioeconomic levels.
Diversity is a main focus of Lee’s work, and in the future, she wants to continue her efforts to show the diversity of ancient lives in China and Mongolia. As someone who was raised in the United States but spends a lot of time working and living in foreign countries as an adult, Lee believes that it is important to understand history from multiple perspectives. Her work hopes to uncover the nuances in ethnicity and culture as part of an effort to promote education and understanding. She also feels it is important to speak out about her work to the public and inspire people of all ages to learn more about anthropology. Her work as a National Geographic Emerging Explorer and a TED Fellow is key to promoting the importance and awareness of diversity.