I’m an anthropological bioarchaeologist who examines the health impact of ancient imperialism, colonialism, and state decline. I analyze mummies and skeletons from archaeological contexts in the Peruvian Andes to investigate how ancient imperial policies and practices structure health status, exposure to violence, and lived experience of ruling and subject peoples. My research interests include paleopathology, violence-related trauma, the use of the body and body parts in rituals, and bioarchaeological perspectives on embodiment. More specifically, I conduct research on what I call a “bioarchaeology of imperialism”, which aims to elucidate the biocultural impact of archaic forms of imperialism on community health and individual lifeways. My ongoing studies in the Andes examine how Wari imperial structures (AD 600 – 1000/1100) affected, and were affected by, heartland and southern hinterland groups. Among these Wari-affiliated communities, I am documenting such things as mortuary practices, disease rates, dietary practices, migration patterns, genetic profiles as viewed through ancient mtDNA, body modification, frequencies of trauma, and specific kinds of culturally mediated violence (e.g., ritual fighting, corporeal punishment, domestic violence). My current, NSF-funded research now examines the decline of the Wari Empire, including possible explanations for Wari decline, as well as the health effects of that collapse. My various publications on the Bioarchaeology of Wari Imperialism and other bioarchaeological themes can be downloaded as PDFs from my Publications page.
Building on those earlier studies, my most recent research –funded by the Wenner Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research and the National Science Foundation– investigates how Wari imperial collapse affected mortuary practices, morbidity profiles, diet and nutrition, and the prevalence of violence in the former imperial heartland. This new research will aid in providing a diachronic view of ancient health, foodways, and lived experience from a time of imperial rule to political disintegration. This cultural transition, which coincided with a period of climate change (intense drought), likely contributed to social and political strife, which may have been manifested as violent conflict and unequal access to some food resources.
As part of those investigations into ancient lifeways, particularly among Wari and post-Wari communities, I have just launched another project, “Turning Genes On and Off in the Ancient Past: An Epigenetic Study of the Ancient World”, co-directed with Dr. Amy Non(Research Assistant Professor in Anthropology at Vanderbilt and Assistant Professor of Anthropology at UC San Diego) and in collaboration with Dr. Ripan Malhi at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign and Dr. Deborah Bolnick at UT-Austin. This research will examine how social and environmental stressors altered the DNA (effectively turning genes off and on and/or muting and enhancing them) in human populations from Wari and post-Wari sites in central Peru, from Roman-era populations in ancient Greece (collaboration with Dr. Joe Rife), and among an antebellum West African slave community from Nashville, Tennessee. We are examining how malnutrition and exposure to violence may have become biologically embedded and perhaps resulted in long term negative health impacts among these ancient communities. This research is supported by a Vanderbilt Discovery Grant.
I am the director of the “Beringa Bioarchaeology and Archaeology Project” in the Majes valley which lies in the Department of Arequipa, that I have been running since 2001. We have recovered at least 150 individuals from this Wari-affiliated site, including intact mummies and partially complete skeletons. These mortuary and osteological data are providing a much needed view of life in the southern hinterland of the Wari domain.
I am also the Project Bioarchaeologist for the “Conchopata Archaeological Project” (CAP), directed by William Isbell and Anita Cook. This is an important Wari imperial site located in the city of Ayacucho. My osteological analysis of the approximately 330 burials—only some of which are complete—recovered by the CAP team has provided the basis for documenting health status and mortuary rituals in the Wari imperial heartland. We continue to conduct stable isotope analyses of this mortuary population to better understand changes in diet and nutrition from the early to late phases of Wari imperial rule and to the time of Wari decline. Those studies are particularly focused on gender-based differences in diet and how those change through time. My collaborators and I are also embarking on a new ancient epigenetic analysis of this community.
I also collaborate with Dr. Steve Wernke, director of the “Tuti Antiguo Archaeological Project” in the Colca valley of southern highland Peru (Department of Arequipa). I am the Project Bioarchaeologist, and I oversaw the excavation and analysis of human burials from two major sectors at the site of Malata: 1) the Late Horizon (Inka era, AD 1450 – 1532) burial towers (chullpas) located at the eastern edge of the site and 2) the early colonial Spanish chapel where individuals were interred under the chapel floor. Analysis of these human remains ties into my broader interests in the biocultural effects of imperialism and colonialism, for this local Collagua ethnic group was first conquered by the Inka, and shortly thereafter, by the Spanish.
My most recent bioarcheological project is an important study of an enslaved community that was buried without any grave markers at the former Grassmere Plantation in Nashville, Tennessee. This area is now the Nashville Zoo. In collaboration with the CRM firm, TRC Solutions, the Historic Site Manager at the Nashville Zoo (Tori Mason), and Dr. Shannon Hodges of MTSU, we have been working to reconstruct the life experiences of those individuals who were omitted from the written records at the plantation. With support from the Wenner Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research (2019 – 2020), our team is using stable isotope analysis (oxygen and strontium) to examine whether the people buried there were from the local Nashville area or were forced to move to the Grassmere Plantation later in their lives. The stable isotope analyses of carbon and nitrogen are also aiding in reconstructing the diet and foodways of the enslaved community, revealing the ways that oppressive slaveholders diminished health through (mal)nutrition, while also showing the creative ways that enslaved peoples resisted those structures of violence and generated new forms of cultural expression through cuisine.