<< Previous Page

Christy Gentry Turner II

28 November 1933 – 27 July 2013

Appreciation by
Yaroslav Kuzmin

Christy G. Turner II in his office (Tempe, AZ), February 2012.
Christy G. Turner II in his office (Tempe, AZ), February 2012.

Professor Christy Gentry Turner II (known to most of his colleagues as Christy Turner) died on 27 July 2013 in his house in Tempe (Arizona, USA), aged 79. Around two weeks later, a parcel from Cambridge University Press with copies of his last book (Turner et al. 2013), written together with Russian co-authors Nikolai Ovodov and Olga Pavlova (the latter Turner's wife since 2004), arrived in his home mailbox.

Christy Turner undoubtedly was one of the leading anthropologists of the second half of the twentieth century, especially in the field of dental anthropology. Together with colleagues, he developed and applied worldwide the Arizona State University Dental Anthropology System (ASUDAS; see Turner et al. 1991; Scott & Turner 1997). Besides this, Turner conducted many other kinds of research, some of it is described in Turner (2013).

Christy Turner was a member of the Department of Anthropology, Arizona State University (Tempe, AZ, USA), from 1966 to 2004. He taught several courses in physical anthropology and archaeology, and supervised graduate students. Turner quickly became the 'centre of gravity' for students and faculty at the Anthropology Department of ASU. As one of his former students said, "he was an idea generator with more ideas than he had time to pursue them". Turner's youngest daughter Korri, trained as a physical anthropologist, wrote in an obituary published in Arizona Republic that he lived by one particular motto: 'remember, there are always more questions than answers'. In 2004, Turner officially retired as Regent's Professor Emeritus. In 2010, a special symposium was organised at the annual meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists in Albuquerque, New Mexico, in honour of Turner. In early 2013, the Festschrift volume with papers presented at that symposium was published (Scott & Irish 2013).

Christy G. Turner II was born in Columbia, Missouri, to Christy G. Turner, Sr. and Katherine Metz Turner. After graduation from high school in California, he took undergraduate courses from the University of Arizona in Tucson, and graduated with a B.A. degree in 1957, followed by an M.A. in 1958. In the late 1950s to early 1960s, the young couple Christy and Jacqueline Turner were working in north-eastern Arizona and south-western Utah on the large-scale salvage archaeology 'Glen Canyon Project', excavating the sites which were soon to be flooded due to dam construction (Turner 1963).

In 1961, Turner entered a PhD course at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, under the supervision of Professor William S. Laughlin, who was one of the most influential US physical anthropologists of the time (see Turner 2002). The first fieldwork campaign was conducted in 1962 on the Aleutian Islands—Kodiak, Umnak and Anangula (see Turner 2004). At the Anangula site, charcoal collected that year from the lowest cultural layer was subsequently dated to c. 8000 years ago, making it the earliest human occupation of the entire Alaskan and Aleutian region at the time (McCartney & Turner 1966).

After obtaining his PhD in 1967 on the dentition of Arctic people in North America, Turner's studies of the northern populations continued until the mid 1970s, and were published afterwards (Turner 1991). This was also the beginning of one of Turner's long-term projects which eventually resulted in a model of the peopling of the New World (Turner 1983a, 1990a, 1998). An influential paper on this subject was published in 1986 in Current Anthropology, combining different lines of evidence in order to understand the dynamic process of the peopling of the Americas at the end of the ice age (Greenberg et al. 1986). Three indigenous population groups—Amerind, Na-Dene and Aleut-Eskimo—were distinguished mainly based on tooth morphology; each of the groups, according to Greenberg et al. (1986), represented a separate migration wave to the Americas from Asia via Beringia.

The establishment of two distinct anthropological groups of native Asian people, Sinodonts and Sundadonts, is among Christy Turner's major achievements (e.g. Turner 1976, 1983a & b). Based on personal examination of scores of thousands of human teeth and crania, Turner found out that there were two types of dentition in East Asia, one in modern China, Russia and Japan (except for Hokkaido Island) which he calls Sinodonts (from Sino, i.e. China); and the second in Southeast Asia and Hokkaido called Sundadonts (from Sunda, the short form of Sundaland, the landmass that existed at the time of the Last Glacial Maximum between the mainland and islands of the region). Of extreme importance was that the native North American populations are of Sinodont type, and this was used in favour of a north-eastern Asian origin of the first Americans.

Another large-scale study undertaken by Christy Turner and his late wife Jacqueline Adams Turner in the 1980–90s was the investigation of cannibalism in the prehistoric Southwest USA. Previously, modern Mexico was considered the only region in North/Central America where it was widely practised. As in his earlier research, Turner established criteria for the identification of cannibalism in human remains, and conducted a careful investigation of the available evidence (Turner & Turner 1999).

In 1979, Christy Turner made his first trip to Russia (the USSR at that time), and continued his 'Russian' projects until 2006. Dental anthropological studies of Late Pleistocene human remains, including the famous Sungir, Mal'ta, Okladnikov Cave and Denisova Cave finds, were undertaken; in the latter two cases, Turner was the very first scholar to be given access to specimens of teeth in the late 1980s, and this was unusual in Soviet times. A short description of these finds soon followed (Turner 1990b), and is now discussed in full in the book which Turner co-authored (Turner et al. 2013). It is also quite symptomatic that one of the first papers with a description of the Sinodonts-Sundadonts dichotomy was published in Russian (Turner 1983a).

Being a remarkable scholar, in 1984 Christy Turner initiated his last large-scale enterprise, this time on perimortem bone damage at Siberian Late Pleistocene palaeontological and archaeological sites. The main research phase of the project was completed in 1998–2006, and the area under investigation stretched from western Siberia to the Sea of Japan coast. Once again, the criteria for identification of bone damage by carnivores and humans were established, and over a decade or so around 8000 specimens from 30 sites were meticulously examined, recorded and interpreted. The importance of this study (Turner et al. 2013) cannot be underestimated; it contains a discussion of the most important and complicated topics in Pleistocene palaeontology, archaeology and anthropology.

On a personal note, I met Christy Turner for the first time at a large scientific meeting in summer 1990 in Akademgorodok (Academic Village) in Novosibirsk, Russia. He gave a talk on the current state of dental anthropological studies in north-eastern Asia (Turner 1990b). After that, we intercepted several times, both in Russia and the USA. I remember especially well my visit to Arizona State University in the spring of 2004, just before Turner's retirement. After my lecture to students and faculty, we went to his hospitable home on Campo Allegre Ave. in Tempe, and continued our conversation over an excellent steak cooked by Christy. At that meeting, we talked about the unique find of a dog-like animal in the Pleistocene deposits of Razboinichya Cave in the Altai Mountains, southern Siberia. Turner observed this find (see Turner et al. 2013: 255) and was confident that it was a very old dog. But how old? Initially, the age was estimated at around 14 000 radiocarbon years BP (based on the dating of presumably associated bear bones) which could make it one of the earliest domestic dogs in the world, but more convincing evidence was required. I therefore decided to organise a research team to establish its direct age by AMS radiocarbon dating, and also to conduct an updated morphological study. It went remarkably well, with the dog-like skull dating to around 33 500 years (Ovodov et al. 2011). The independent DNA study confirmed that the Razboinichya individual is a primitive dog (Druzhkova et al. 2013). Thanks to Christy, we now have a lot to study in terms of early dogs in Siberia! This is just one of the illustrations of his truly multidisciplinary way of thinking.

Our last meeting was in late February 2013, again at Turner's home. At that time, the book on perimortem taphonomy in Siberia was almost completed but he remarked, pointing to files piling up on his office shelves: "I have 16 more projects to work on!" We discussed the pioneering taphonomic works on Palaeolithic sites in Russia conducted in the 1930s, and Christy asked me to get a copy of a paper little known in the West by Bonch-Osmolovsky (1931) which I quickly obtained with the help of colleagues from St. Petersburg.

Christy Turner throughout his career was a tireless photographer, and used his large archive to illustrate not only scholarly publications but also remembrance essays (Turner 2002, 2004).

As for Turner's well-known sense of humour, perhaps he learnt a lot from his mentor Professor W.S. Laughlin who responded to Greenberg et al.'s (1986) conclusion about three waves of human migration to the Americas: "...a single small migration some 16 000 years ago appears most parsimonious. Researchers who flirt with trinities should be reminded that Eskimos have walked on water for 10 000 years. They wait for it to freeze, and then on thin ice they avoid creating unnecessary waves" (Laughlin 1986: 490). This eloquent comment, of course, did not result in a conflict between a former graduate student and his teacher, and they kept meeting each other until the late 1980s (see Turner 2002: 329). Turner's own publications also contain several examples of good humour: "...at a drizzly late night vodka-fueled field camp discussion, one of our 20 or so Russian colleagues replied, after being asked why the New World was colonized so late: 'Why would anyone want to leave the paradise of southern Siberia?'" (Turner et al. 2013: 402–403). The epigraph to Chapter 4 in the 2013 book is: "[i]f you're not taking flack, you're not over the target. (US Air Force maxim)" (Turner et al. 2013: 349).

Christy Turner is survived by three daughters, Kali, Kimi and Korri, and his second wife, Olga Pavlova. His first wife of 40 years, Jacqueline Adams Turner, predeceased him in 1996.