Biography of Dr. John H. Relethford

I wrote this short biography in part to deal with the misconception of many students that I (or many other professors) had somehow decided at an early age this is what we wanted to be when we grew up. This was not the case. I didn't even find out about biological anthropology until I was already in college. When I was a young child I had the usual ideas of growing up to be an astronaut or dig up dinosaurs, but these were not serious career goals. In grade school I seldom gave the future much thought, and spent much more time reading comic books than anything else. By the time I was a teenager, the comic books had expanded to include science fiction, but I still didn't give much thought to a career, other than occasional thoughts about going into electrical engineering (although I would have much preferred to be a rock star). The point is that many professors (and probably people in most other professions) wind up where they are by a very long and convuluted series of events, few of which were planned. If you, the reader, are an undergraduate without a definite career goal, don't let it worry you!

I was born in Bayshore, New York, and was raised in Bellport, New York, both on the south shore of Long Island. I attended Kreamer Street Elementary School, Bellport Junior High School, and Bellport Senior High School. As a child, my interests were comic books, science fiction, dinosaurs, and electronics. In high school, I was initially interested in becoming an electrical engineer, but this never materialized. By my senior year, I had pretty much lost interest in school and did not have a clue as to what to do with my future.

My senior year photograph (yeah, I know - pretty geeky):



I graduated high school in 1970 and went to work at several department stores. I soon became bored and decided to give college a try. I entered Suffolk County Community College in the fall of 1971 and graduated in May 1973 with an Associates Degree in Liberal Studies. By this point, I had found many academic disciplines that interested me. In fact, my main problem was trying to pick one to major in, when I really just wanted to take a wide variety of courses. The subjects that most interested me were mathematics and anthropology. I transferred to SUNY-Albany in the fall of 1973 as a math major, planning an anthropology minor. One of my anthropology electives was in "Human Origins and Prehistory." I was hooked. I soon changed my major to anthropology. Since I always had a hard time figuring out a major (let alone a possible career), I found anthropology to be the perfect major. It allowed me the greatest variety of courses and combined interests in both the natural and social sciences.


My sophomore year in college:




My senior year in college:




My college senior year photograph:


I graduated SUNY-Albany in May 1975, and stayed there to start graduate school in anthropology. During the first semester of graduate school I realized I was not at all sure why I was there. Was the field that interesting? Or, was I simply hanging on because of inertia? I also had some desire to get back out into the workforce. At the end of the semester, I took a leave of absence from the graduate program. In the spring of 1976 I worked part-time as a computer programmer for the anthropology department while I took additional coursework in computer science. As the money ran out, I looked for another job. In the summer of 1976 I started work as an Assistant to the Registrar at Skidmore College and stayed there during the next fall semester. By this time, I realized that anthropology was what I wanted to do, and went back into the graduate program in the spring of 1977. I finished my Master's degree in the fall 1977 semester, and completed my doctorate in May of 1980. I felt great pride at having accomplished all of this. After all, I originally did not know if I even wanted to go to college, and had many doubts about my capabilities.

My first job was as a post-doctoral research scientist with the Department of Genetics at the Southwest Foundation for Biomedical Research (now known as the Texas Biomedical Research Institute) in San Antonio. While there, I worked on a variety of research problems, ranging from inbreeding in baboon populations to risk factors for diabetes to analysis of dental growth in baboons. However, I missed the academic atmosphere and wanted to teach. In the fall of 1981 I came to SUNY-Oneonta to teach in our anthropology department. Except for a semester as a visiting lecturer at SUNY-Albany and two years working as an epidemiologist for the New York State Department of Health, I have been here ever since. I am married, have three sons, and live in Oneonta.

I have written an introductory textbook entitled The Human Species: An Introduction to Biological Anthropology, which is now in its ninth edition (McGraw-Hill, New York, 2013).


I have also written a textbook entitled Human Population Genetics, published by Wiley-Blackwell (2012).

I have also coauthored a textbook entitled Human Biological Variation with two friends and colleagues, Jim Mielke of the Department of Anthropology at the University of Kansas, and Lyle Konigsberg of the Department of Anthropology at the University of Illinois. This book is now in its second edition (Oxford University Press, 2011)


My research has primarily been in the area of human population genetics. This interest began in graduate school where my dissertation dealt with population genetics and history in rural western Ireland. A major part of that study was the use of population genetic models for analyzing complex quantitative traits, such as anthropometrics (measures of the body, head, and face). During the mid-1980s, I became interested in historical demography, and initiated a study of population changes in historical Massachusetts, focusing on a group of communities in north-central Massachusetts during the 18th and 19th centuries. This research focused on the effect of population size on patterns of migration and mating structure as determined from analysis of marriage records. During my stay at the New York State Health Department from 1989-1991 I analyzed injury mortality in New York State. After I returned to SUNY-Oneonta in 1991, my interest came back to studies of Irish population history. At that point, I obtained a research grant from the National Science Foundation to complete computerization of anthropometric and demographic data on over 10,000 adult Irish that had originally been collected during the 1930s. In 1993, my interests shifted toward the problem of using genetic data to make inferences about modern human origins. Did modern humans derive exclusively from a recent African origin within the past 200,000 years, or was there some genetic contribution from outside of Africa? Much of my early work in this area was summarized in my book, Genetics and the Search for Modern Human Origins, published by Wiley-Liss in the spring of 2001.


I have also written a book intended for a general audience on how genetics can be used to reconstruct population history. This book, titled Reflections of Our Past: How Human History is Revealed in Our Genes, was published by Westview Press in April, 2003. This book was chosen as an Outstanding Academic Title for 2003 by Choice: Current Reviews for Academic Libraries, and was winner of the 2004 W.W. Howells Book Award given by the Biological Anthropology Section of the American Anthropological Association.

In addition to my books, I have written a number of articles in scientific journals and books, as indicated on my vita.

Throughout my life I have been motivated by the desire to do something for a living that was also fun. I do not want a life where there is a clear division between job and personal time. My work is also my hobby, and it is difficult for me to separate work time from fun time, which is exactly the way I want it. The continued challenges of teaching and research are quite enjoyable, and varied enough so that I don't get stale.

Me (third from left) with anthropology graduates in May 2000.