Whether it’s the bones in the Paris catacombs or the historical use of psychedelics, television producers know who to call when they need some expert commentary: CSUDH associate professor of anthropology Sarah Lacy. In the last six months, she has been featured prominently on both the History Channel’s The UnXplained with William Shatner and CuriosityStream’s History by the Numbers, which also airs on Smithsonian Channel Canada.
Lacy’s foray as an expert commentator started as a fun YouTube project. She and Cal Poly Pomona history professor Rachael Hill starred in several short videos for Gamology’s Experts React series, offering academic opinions on the accuracy of historical video games like Assassin’s Creed Valhalla and Call of Duty: WWII.
The producers of History by the Numbers saw Lacy’s videos when they were ramping up production of the series, and felt that she was a perfect addition to the program. Lacy appears in each of the series’ 20 episodes, delivering her thoughts on everything from the “Roaring ‘20s” to crime bosses through history.
“Most of the themes don’t necessarily have anything to do with anthropology in specific, but were things that an anthropologist could comment on, like the gender gap,” says Lacy. “They gave me all the scripts ahead of time, and asked me to give feedback on things I might be interested in elaborating on. Plus, they gave me a ton of questions beforehand for each episode, so I could prepare my answers before we shot the segments.”
Lacy was also tapped for an appearance on The UnXplained with William Shatner. The producers were looking for an expert for an episode about skeletons, and contacted the Natural History Museum in downtown Los Angeles.
“None of the archeologists there at the museum work on human remains, though,” says Lacy. “They’ve been quite nice about throwing things my way at various points in the past, so when they found out the show wanted someone to discuss skeletal remains, they said, ‘Give Sarah Lacy a call.’”
The episode with Lacy is about skeletons, and the various ways that humans interact with them. “So I talked about the Paris catacombs, and some other weird things involving skeletons,” says Lacy. “I was able to give them a little bit more of an archeological perspective than some of their other commentators.”
“They kept trying to draw me out to say things like, ‘Oh, we don’t really know’ or ‘It’s a mystery,’ because they’re really leaning into the mysterious aspect,” she laughs. “But I was able to keep them a bit more grounded.”
Lacy’s television appearances are just a sideline to her anthropology research and teaching. Her most recent research paper, “Between a Rock and a Cold Place: Neanderthal Biological Cold Adaptations,” written in conjunction with University of Notre Dame anthropology professor Cara Ocobock and student Alexandra Niclou, was published last year in the journal Evolutionary Anthropology.
“We talk about all the time how Neanderthals are cold-adapted, and there’s been tons of research along that line, but no one had brought it all together,” says Lacy. “What we’re showing is that we have data about energy metabolism, and we can look at aspects of anatomy, both chest shape, nose shape, body proportions, that all suggest that they’re cold adapted.
“We looked at the evidence of the kind of diet they were exploiting, what kinds of behaviors they were doing in terms of shelter building, fire, and clothing. We wanted to really cover all forms of anthropological research, human biology as well as archeological signatures.”
The paper not only summarized and compiled available research about Neanderthal cold adaptations, it noted the gaps in that knowledge, as well. “I think the biggest takeaway is actually identifying nine different places where we don’t have answers to some questions, but we could. Some of them we haven’t clarified, such as about the sex differences in metabolic demands for Neanderthals.
“We’ve basically laid out for future graduate students, ‘Here are some perfect PhD thesis’s, go run with them!” she adds.
Lacy is currently serving as the interim director of the Office of Undergraduate Research and is taking a break from teaching this semester. Her research continues, however – and she’ll be more than ready the next time a TV producer needs some expert opinions.
History by the Numbers is available on the Curiosity Stream app and on Smithsonian Channel Canada. The UnXplained with William Shatner airs on the History Channel, and is available for streaming on their website and app.