Why Anthropology Matters (now more than ever)


Excited chatter echoes down the second floor corridor as a group of middle school girls approaches the door to the osteology lab. The young women file into the lab wide-eyed, curiously craning their necks to see the rows of bones on the shelves and tables. “Are those real?” They ask, pointing to a row of skulls or the complete skeleton on the table, “are those someone’s bones?”

Typically, I begin these GiST (Girls in STEM at Tulane) workshops by introducing myself and welcoming them to the New Life in Buried Bones workshop. Today, I tell them, you all will learn about the study of human skeletal remains from archaeological sites and in forensic cases. Using the examples of bones with dental disease and cranial modification, I show these young women how human bones inform us on ancient life. They always love to hear gory forensic cases, so I make sure to include a few examples of blunt-force trauma and gun-shot wounds. For those interested in medicine or biomechanics, I give demonstrations of how repetitive motions to two joint surfaces can result in boney changes and sometimes even osteoarthritis. Every once in a while, one girl will exclaim that she also wants to be a bioarchaeolgist or a forensic anthropologist when she grows up.

Today, this workshop felt as if it would be different. Today, my enthusiasm felt strained. I had spent the last few days deliberating over what I was going to say to these girls. I could not simply pretend that everything was okay. It certainly wasn’t. I could not think of words eloquent enough to express how distraught I felt. Today, it was my job to stand in front of these young women and tell them that her education was one of the most important things she’ll ever have. She shouldn’t feel discouraged when she fails, or when her peers let her down. I was supposed to tell her that the bullies don’t win in the end. Hard work and critical thinking are invaluable. Being bold, imaginative, and fearless is what leads to innovation and discovery. The world is full of its problems, but she has the ability to tackle the most insurmountable challenges. Pursuing science, I would tell her, is one way to do that.

Today, those words felt hallow, flippant, and simply untrue. I should be thinking of ways to encourage and inspire these women, but instead, in light of this week’s election, I was plagued with memories of all the troubles I had when I was their age. I thought of the bullies, male peers who harassed me for answering questions in class or commented on my appearance, as if that had something to do with my value or intelligence. How was I supposed to tell them that no matter how impressive her accomplishments, there will be that person who attempts to discredit her, belittle her, and make her feel worthless? Worst of all, how am I supposed to tell her that all of these problems are simply a phase, and that things will get better after middle and high school? She has a bright future, I should tell her. She would be accepted to university based on her merits. But would always be someone there, a real or fictions demon on her shoulder whispering in her ear that she only got in because she’s a woman, a woman of color, an immigrant, a LGBT? I shudder to think of those who said similar things to me (and I enjoy more privilege than most); those men who said or implied that I took their spot, that being a woman gave me a competitive edge they did not enjoy. Forgot that maybe my successes meant I was qualified. Someone had to be blamed, and I was the unlucky winner.

As much as I wanted to unleash my own frustrations, I knew that was not the best way to proceed. I am sad, I am angry, but I am certainly not going to back down and admit defeat.

Instead, I will look to my greatest comfort: anthropology.

What is anthropology? I ask the young women.

“The study of human bones!”

“The study of ancient societies!”

“The study of artifacts and archaeology!”

“The study of culture!”

You are all correct, I tell them, these are all important aspects of being human and they are intimately interconnected and manifest in infinite, fascinating ways. Anthropology is the science of human beings. We have the tool kit of a scientist: we ask questions, formulate hypotheses, make observations of the evidence, and evaluate our results. Our goal is to understand the complexities of human nature, why humans do what we do. It is during that fascinating, fulfilling, and sometimes frustrating journey that we discover how valuable and rare our open-mindedness and thirst for understanding is in the world.

My fellow anthropologists, all you linguists, cultural and medical anthropologists, forensic anthropologists, archaeologists, bioarchaeologists, and primatologists, you know this. And it thrills me to call you my friends and colleagues.

But to those who are unfamiliar with what I do, this is for you. Anthropology is not simply an intellectual oddity tucked away in the ivory towers of university campuses. It cannot be buried in piles of jargon-heavy books and articles, though that doesn’t mean some haven’t tried. Studying the interconnectedness of all aspects of human life enables us to understand why diseases spread and why crops fail. This science of human nature allows us to explore why societies commissioned art to inspire creativity or to evoke a sense of the divine. Anthropology explores how empires expand and collapse. It does not shy away from discussions of race, gender, and colonialism; in fact, it confronts these debates head-on, challenging us to critically evaluate our past mistakes so that our future is full of thoughtful, well-informed decisions. To an anthropologist, why early humans migrated out of Africa, over Beringia, and went to the moon seems almost obvious. Humans are wired to look to the horizon, across oceans, and up at the night sky: we want to go beyond our known world to see what lies just out of reach.

Anthropology has comforted me these last few days. Hatred and fear are simply the symptoms of ignorance, and it can spread like wildfire if left unchecked and unchallenged. To be an anthropologist is to understand human similarities and differences. We do not hate the unknown nor fear the challenges of this ever-changing world. Instead, we build connections with our global community and to the past by studying cultures, ancient societies, and their material correlates; we do not build walls. Anthropology is a discipline that has the power to understand who we were. It is more important now than ever that we recognize that anthropology also has the indispensable power to help us decide who we are and who we want to be.

So today, as I looked at those excited, hopeful, bright young women in the osteology lab, I tell them I decided to study anthropology because I wanted to fully comprehend and appreciate the complex, beautiful world around me. In the words of Ruth Benedict, I tell them, “the purposes of anthropology is to make the world safe for human differences.”

Mummies, Saints, and Religion in the Andes

Andean peoples have a long history of incorporating new practices into their worldview. Just as the Inka institutionalized ritual life during the Late Intermediate Period (1000-1450 AD), Andean people were able to incorporate the rituals of Catholicism into their own religious framework after the Spanish conquest. In Catholicism, the body—be it the body of a deceased Christian, a saint, or the body of Christ—was used to convey meanings about life, death, and the promise of an ideal afterlife in exchange for devout living. Similarly, the body had an equally ritualistic role among the Andean people as ancestral mummies were consulted on matters of life and venerated long after death. In other words, the body in its preserved, mummified form had similar roles in Catholicism and Andean religion. The he fusing together two separate ideologies (Andean beliefs and Catholicism), or syncretism, may have been partly due to the importance the Andean people placed on mummified bodies. What are the similar ways  Andean people and Catholics from Europe perceived the body?

The body is not simply a biological entity, but is a carefully crafted artifact that continues to be worked and transformed after death. In death, the body transforms into a form of material culture created and maintained through social practices, historical circumstances, and other social forces (Sofaer, 2006). The body is used to convey representations of death and the afterlife, of a society´s boundaries, of the nature of humanness, and of the ordering of the social world. The treatment of the corpse embodies complex concepts about the living body (what it is to be human, how to follow codes of conduct) and society at large (how the social order is represented but also about the nature of death) (Pearson, 2008).

The dead, mummies in particular, were seen as an active group in the Andean world. One of the best-known techniques of transforming and utilizing the corpse is by means of its transformation into a mummy. Such bodies retained what Tung (2014) refers to as “post-mortem agency” in which the bodies, even in their altered, mummified state, remain politically and social active in death. These bodies are the culmination of rituals that serve to separate the dead from the living and install them within another dimension of human understanding (Pearson, 2008). Interestingly, the perceptions of the mummified body were similar between Catholics and Andean people, and, as I argue, allowed for the syncretism of Catholicism and Andean religion.

Mummification and Ancestor Veneration in Andean Religion

The Andean peoples had long venerated their ancestors and the mummified the remains of their most important relatives (mallquis), but the Inka institutionalized this process of ancestor worship by creating a system of religious corporations (panacas) to honor deceased rulers (Andrian, 2001). Theses practices continued through the Inka period and desiccation of the body continued to be the most notable funerary practice throughout the Andes at Spanish contact (Rakita and Buikstra, 2005).

After death, the living exerted great effort to embalm the body of the Inka emperor in a manner that preserved his appearance and likeness as in life (Cobo, 1990 [1653]; Cieza de León (1959 [1553]). The mummified Inka emperors were wrapped in large amounts of cotton and dressed in rich clothing and were enshrined in golden thrones in the Temple del Sol (Korikancha) in Cusco (Dillehay, 1991), or in their own homes where kin could provide attention and care for their bodies (Rowe, 1995). Cobo (1653, 1990) notes that some bodies over 200 years old were still found in Cusco and were so well preserved that the skin and hair were still intact, as if the individual had died less than a month before!

A portion of the gold and silver the deceased had accumulated in his lifetime were placed with the body while other sumptuary goods were buried elsewhere, specifically in places where the deceased usually went to enjoy himself during his life (Cobo, 1990 [1653]). A separate set of priests made offerings to the mummies of deceased Inkas and other prominent figures, providing ritual meals of chicha and other foodstuff, surrounding them with utensils used in life (such as textiles, hoes, and weapons), and including them to community religious celebrations (Cobo, 1990 [1653]); Cieza de León, 1959 [1553]).

From Felipe Guaman Poma de Ayala: El primer nueva corónica y buen gobierno

The body of the dead Inka emperor was dried and preserved above ground, guarded by attendants, and treated as if the ruler were still alive (Dillehay, 1995). The body itself preserved the memory of the dead ruler, and his descendants recited his deeds on public occasions. The mummified Inka rulers participated in public affairs, were brought to temples and houses to carry out functions that, in all appearances, were of a political character. For example, they were regularly borne on litters during the most important ceremonies that took place in Cusco’s plaza and often consulted on important matters (Pizarro, 1978 [1571]).

The palaces and other residences of a deceased ruler were not inherited by his successors; rather, the dead physically and symbolically were still believed to occupy their residences and palaces even in death. These residences served as monumental reminders of the ruler (Rowe, 1995). In other words, the deceased Inka ruler continued to physically and symbolically participate in society; he did not and could not wholly die.

Are there any similarities between the bodies of the Inka and Catholic bodies?

Incorruptible Catholic Bodies

The Roman Catholic Church has long practiced mummification to preserve the bodies of saints, priests, bishops, and other high-ranking church members. The bodies are named “incorruptible” because the bodies are believed to have preserved miraculously and are immune to decay (Jeremiah, 2012; Chamberlain and Pearson, 2001). The spontaneous preservation was believed to be evidence of the sanctity of the individual (Jeremiah, 2012; Chamberlain and Pearson, 2001); an individual believed to be pure and lived what is considered an “uncorrupted” life. While many of the so-called incorruptible bodies have been deemed as forgeries, the perception of the incorruptible nature of the bodies continues in the Catholic mindset (Jeremiah, 2012).

The display of these incorruptible bodies belonging to saints, priests, bishops, and other high-ranking individuals in the Catholic Church serves several purposes. Displaying bodies of the deceased functions as a constant reminder of the inevitability of death to encourage followers of the Catholic faith to live devout lives. Also, bodies belonging to divine individuals are believed to be immediate sources of supernatural power for good or for ill, and close contact with them or possession of them was a means of participating in that power (Geary, 1986: 176). Beginning in the 11th century and into the present, whole and partial bodies of saints were prized for their thaumaturgic power, particularly “their ability to substitute for public authority, protest and secure the community, determine the relative status of individuals and churches, and provide for the community´s economic prosperity” (Geary, 1986: 179). In sum, mummified bodies served religious as well as social, economic, and political purposes ultimately to legitimate the authority of the Roman Catholic Church.

Mummied head believed to belong to St. Catherine of Siena, Basilica Cateriniana San Domenico, Siena, Italy

Spanish Conquest and Dismantlement of Ancestor Veneration

The Spanish justified their conquest of Tawantinsuyu in 1532 by vowing to convert the indigenous souls with their pagan beliefs to the Catholic faith (Andrien, 2008). While the conquistadors initially sought the treasure held by mummy and their shrines, Spaniards quickly realized that the mummies were dangerous because they commanded considerable political and religious authority; they were still conferred with, and capable of, inspiring their followers to action against Spanish rule (Dean, 2010). Spaniards rapidly recognized the danger posed by the cadavers of the divine, ancestral deceased, control over the dead—both the bodies of the deceased and beliefs about them—was a critical element in the conversion efforts of early Christian evangelizers in the Andes (Harris, 1982).

Body, Soul, and the Afterlife: Modern Ethnographic Examples 

The idea that the spiritual identity and power of the dead is located in their desiccated physical remains is a very old one in the Andes. According to Inka religious traditions, the dead would reach their final destination or resting place (pacarina) after the performance of specific rituals and mummification. Yet, the individual’s mummified corpse and the objects belonging to that individual during life are both believed to house the essence of the individual after death while the essence of the individual journeyed to the afterlife simultaneously (Andrien, 2008; Dillehay, 1995). Similarly, in Catholicism, the deceased also go through a transition into the afterlife (heaven), while both the body and the objects associated with the individual continues to be sacred and possess the essence of the individual (Jeremiah, 2012).

In modern-day Peru, indigenous people in Huaquirca, Department Apurímac, Peru, prepare and process in a complex ritual of combining aspects of both Catholicism and Andean beliefs to ensure the soul reaches the afterlife. While a portion of Huaquircaños physically burry the deceased in a Christian burial, others preform a clothes-washing ceremony of the deceased’s clothing. This clothes-washing ceremony ensures that the soul does not return to the clothing he or she wore during life, but instead continues onto the afterlife (Gose, 1994). Similar to the Inka mummies, objects and the places the Huaquircaños habited during life potentially continue to possess the soul of the deceased (Gose, 1994).

The Sonqueños of the south-central highlands of Peru combine their indigenous Andean beliefs with Christian ideas about the afterlife. The Sonqueños burry their dead in their cemetery in the Christian tradition, yet they conceptually locate their ancestors in the chullpas (burial houses or towers) on their sacred hill located near their village (Allen, 2002). While the bodies are physically the cemetery and conceptually occupy the chullpas, the souls, or essences, of the deceased also travel to what the Sonqueños refer to as hanan pacha (upper world), which they also define as the Christian heaven (Allen, 2002). Thus, the concepts of the afterlife do not diverge dramatically from the original Andean beliefs; rather, the concepts of the afterlife are incorporated into the Catholic worldview.

Purity of the Preserved Body

Inka mummies were ancestors that were meant to be visited and preform as oracles. It would therefore follow that the preservation of their corporeal form was imperative. In fact, during the Spanish extirpation, Andean people removed the bodies because the deceased from Catholic cemeteries. They reported that the dead were unhappy with burial; they were alone and isolated, unable to breathe and move under the weight of the earth, and overwhelmed by the stench of their own rotting flesh which had not been allowed to desiccate naturally in the cool, arid air of the traditional crypt-cave (Doyle, 1988). Among the modern-day Sonqueños in Peru, Allen (2002) notes that after death, a sinful individual is unable to accomplish his or her transformation from the body to the afterlife, and therefore be forced to animate its rotting body.

Similarly, Catholic bodies of iconic religion figures preserved due to the purity of soul; they are thus the ideal examples of upholders of the Catholic faith (Jeremiah, 2012). The body of Margaret of Cortona (1247-1297), for example, did not decay after her death, but instead gave off a pleasant sent that was interpreted as the Odor of Sanctity. Her remarkable preservation later led to her canonization (Vago, 2007) and status as an incorruptible body in the Catholic Church (Jeremiah, 2012). The bodies of the ideal Catholic, therefore, would be spiritually pure and therefore immune to decay or putrefaction.

St. Margaret of Cortona

The importance of purity and perfection in the Inka ideology is best illustrated in the qhapaq huchas, or capacocha, a ceremony during which female and male children and teenagers of exemplary of physical purity and perfection, known as ahapaq hucha, were immolate tributes to the Inka Empire (Besom, 2010). Typically, the qhapaq huchas were virgin boys, girls, and young women who were selected specifically for their good looks and lack of blemishes such as warts, freckles (Cobo 1979: 235-238 [1653]; 1990: 111-113 [1653]).

The capacocha involved leaving objects in a burial that in some way mirrored, either literally or metaphorically, the deceased (Gaither et al., 2008: 108, 113, 115-116). The ahapaq hucha would be enshrined with objects that denote markers of gender and, arguably, objects representing the ideal professions and behaviors of living males and females. For example, feminine statuettes and markers of gender, such as tipus, were deposited with girls and young women (Ceruti, 2003; Linares, 1966; Reinhard 1996, 1999; Reinhard and Ceruti, 2000). Females and female statuettes were dressed like aqlla-kuna “chosen women,” who were virgins who served as imperial gods of state (Besom 2009). Camelids were exclusively placed with boys, perhaps because in Andean society it is usually males who herd and are in charge of the llama caravans (Besom, 2009).

In sum, both Catholicism and Andean religion place emphasis on the sacredness of unblemished bodies as an indication of the purity of the individual. The bodies of the saints were physical representations of the ideal Catholic. The ahapaq huchas, similarly, were meant to embody the ideas of perfection, both physically as well as in their gendered professions.

Inka Burial Objects and Catholic Relics

Statues depicting divine individuals are used as objects of veneration and meditation in religions worldwide. The Catholic Church defines relics as the remains of a saint or holy person. There are three tiers of relics: 1) saints’ bodies and instruments involved in the crucifixion of Christ, 2) objects in close contact with a saint, such as clothing or instruments of martyrdom, and 3) objects touched by a saint (Edwards, 1997). Jewel-encrusted reliquaries to hold the relics, images of the saints and other holy persons also had considerable religion value and power in the Roman Catholic church and were therefore installed securely in the chancels of the richest monasteries and cathedrals of Europe (Jeremiah, 2012).

The physical body of the saint, however, maintains the most power in the Roman Catholic faith. The bodies, and sometimes body parts, of a specific saint were thought to possess the spiritual essence of the deceased. These saints were believed to be simultaneously present in the bodily remains and in heave also (Bynum, 1995). When a saint or high-ranking member of the church died, the body is preserved and the pieces of the body, or even pieces of clothing or objects that belong to the individual are sent to various locations (Jeremiah, 2012).

Possession of a relic body, piece of the body, and/or object belonging to the deceased was beneficial because the church or temple that houses these objects would become an important site for pilgrimages, and therefore made more money (Sharf, 1992). These bodies and body parts were believed to be reservoirs of divine energy with the power to protection and even offer advice and guidance to the faithful (Jeremiah, 2012).

Saint Coronatus, Heiligkreuztal, Germany

Similarly, the Andean people and the Inka shared similar viewpoints on the sacred nature of the body as well as the objects formally belonging to the deceased. Some of the of the treasures belonging to the deceased Inka were enshrined with the mummy, yet many objects were buried or placed in places where the deceased occupied during life (Cobo, 1990 [1653]). Because these objects were made for the ruler’s use when he was alive, Inka believed that no other person should use these objects after his death; they were considered property and remain at the service of their owner (Cobo, 1990 [1653]).

A variety of artifacts that denote the individual’s sacred status would accompany the qhapaq hucha during the capacocha. A male qhapaq hucha would be carefully entombed in a pit or bottom of a deep shaft. He would be seated, and around him would be placed or he would wear various offerings—Spondylus shell, an llawt´u (head band), a medallion, and a bracelet (Besom, 2009), along with anthropomorphic and zoomorphic statuettes made from gold, silver, copper, or Spondylus (Besom, 2010).

Just as relics served to connect Catholic cathedrals along pilgrimage routes oriented around Vatican City—the seat of the Roman Catholic faith, the qhapaq hucha were immolated in shrines that had a particular relationship with the Inka capital, Cusco. Cusco was the center of the ceque system—a series of imagined, ritual pathways radiating from Cusco and along which sacred shrines, or huacas, were placed (Bauer, 1992). Bernabé Cobo (1990 [1563]) first noted that the ceques of Cusco radiated out from the Koricancha and Bauer (1992) later found that many ceques do in fact originate at the Inka’s main temple.

Interestingly, the ceques, shrines, and the capacocha ceremony all may be intertwined. During capacocha, the selected children were taken to Cuzco and then distributed to the principal huacas—places believed to be imbued with sacred power—to be ritually sacrificed. These places were sacred shrines and sites in and around Cusco that were specifically for the offerings of children. Shrines that were further away required long processions and upon their arrival took part in festivals (Besom, 2010). Additionally, a number of Inka shrines had an oracular function, so whenever the Inkas asked for advice on important matters, they dispatched children to these shrines as immolations (Besom, 2010).

Besom (2009) argues that the child sacrifices reified the social stricter and political organization of the empire, particularly the asymmetrical relationship between Cuzco, the center of political and religious authority in the state, and the hinterlands. The capacocha was also intertwined with Inka economy—preforming these ceremonies were vital to good weather, water availability, and agricultural production (Benson, 2009). Considering the socio-economic and religious importance of the shrines and the qhapaq hucha, the capacocha ceremony is a religion procession that resembles a pilgrimage. Shrines are similar to churches and holy places that enshrine relics and the qhapaq hucha are, indeed, similar to the relics themselves. Interestingly, the ceque system links many of the shrines to Cusco as well as the Inka’s main temple—the Koriconcha—while Catholic churches also conceptually link themselves to the center of the Roman Catholic Church—the Vatican.

Capacocha of teenage girl, Museum of High Altitude Archaeology, Salta, Argentina

Bodies of Ancestors and Saints

The Catholic incursion into Peru sought to displace the visible role of the dead in the construction of social organization within the community (Sillar, 1992). In particular, the Spanish imposed a series of saint day celebrations; yet, such saint days have been adapted to serve the needs of Andean communities (Sillar, 1992). New Spanish towns in the Andes were named for a saint, and the likenesses of martyrs, apostles, and founders of religious orders were placed alongside images of Christ and the Virgin in the altar decorations and murals of churches. In the Andes, the annual celebration of the town’s patron became a major event in public ritual life. Individual saints were remembered on a daily basis. In fact, Felipe Guaman Poma, an Andean chronicler, incorporated the feasts of the saints in his monthly calendar of colonial Andean ceremonial life (Guaman Poma de Ayala, 1980 [1615/1616]).

Despite these incorporations of saints and celebrations into Andean life, indigenous populations continued to treat images and statues of saints in the same manner they treated their ancestral mummies. Chroniclers wrote that the Andean people intentionally mummified the bodies of their forbearers in order to worship them. The spirit of the ancestral mummy was thought to reside in the group’s place of origin, and could be called back to the mummy for consultation (Salomon, 1995). Jesuit missionary Jose de Acosta argued that the transformation of a body, in this case the body of an Andean ancestor, into an object of veneration was the equivalent to making what the Spanish missionaries deemed a “false” religious image, or idol. (Ramos, 2010).

All Saints’ Day, Peru

A religion that combines Catholic as well as Andean perceptions on the nature of ancestral and saints’ bodies persists in modern-day Peru. The ceremony of Corpus Cristi preformed by the Sonqueños in south-central Peru is an excellent example that demonstrates the syncretism between Inka capacocha ceremony and Catholic religious celebrations. Corpus Cristi is a moveable feast, falling in late May or June (on Thursday after Trinity Sunday). About thirty Sonqueños embark on an arduous journey to the distant peaks of Qoyllur Riti range. According to legend, a miracle took place at Qoyllur Riti: the Christ Child appeared to a shepherd boy from the nearby village of Tayankani. After playing with the shepherd boy, the Christ Child disappeared into a rock, which was ever after marked with his imprint (Allen, 2002).

The Qoyllur Riti mountain range represents three important tenants in the Sonqueños’ Andean religion: the Riti (the snow), the Taytakuna (the fathers), and the great Apus (Lord Mountains). The rock bearing Christ´s image, now enclosed in a concrete chapel, is a prototype of Sonqo´s own small taytacha—a small portable shrine consisting of a red three-sided wooden box, about one foot square and six inches deep, painted inside with a simple picture of the crucified Christ. Their powerful object, the taytacha, begins with ritual travels within Sonqo, for he is carried around the community for contributions, then visits churches and households. After weeks of preparation, the taytacha sets out on a procession that transcends the community, leading the pilgrims through a landscape of greater and more powerful Places. During Corpus Cristi, the Sonqueños traveling to the glacier peak, carrying the tayacha with them. This ritual allows the Sonqueños to confirm their relationship with the Sacred Places of regional importance and reestablish themselves as an ayllu (Allen, 2002).

The Corpus Cristi exhibits several aspects of both Andean and Catholic religions. The journey itself is described as a pilgrimage to celebrate a Catholic miracle, yet the journey itself is similar to that of the capacocha ceremony: images of the individuals who embody purity and perfection (the Virgin Mary and Jesus Christ) accompany the caravan and are taken to a mountain peak emplaced with both Andean and Catholic sacredness. The Qoyllur Riti mountain range remains to be a sacred site for the Sonqueños, be it similar to that of a Catholic pilgrimage site, or an Andean shrine. The goal of the journey is reestablish the ayllu’s social-economic ties within their community with a particular recognizing their ancient connection to the community’s ancestors, be they abstract ancestors in the afterlife, or the bones in the nearby chullpas, but not, unfortunately, the mummified remains venerated by their Inka forbearers. In sum, the Corpus Cristi ceremony combines both Catholic beliefs and Andean traditions, particularly the use of images of saints and holy individuals in lieu of actual bodies. The Sonqueños thus honor their Inka forbearers while also actively involving Catholic beliefs into their worldview.


In conclusion, the syncretism of Andean religion and Catholicism is apparent in the treatment of the mummified body through time. The perception of the preserved bodies of saints in Catholicism and Andean religion is quite similar in that both religions share similar perceptions on the post-mortem agency and socio-political power the bodies possess. This allowed for the Andean people to both readily accept and quickly modify Catholicism to fit into their ideology. The body, especially the mummified corpse, is therefore a power object that is both maintained and transformed by social and cultural forces in the Andes.

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Physiological and Evolutionary Mechanisms of Fertility at High Altitude: Part 1

High altitudes have the potential to negatively impact normal bodily functions of individuals who are both accustomed, or not properly acclimated, to such environments. Air deficient in oxygen, colder temperatures, greater exposure to solar radiation, and higher energetic costs of subsistence compared to that of lowland environments are potentially detrimental to physiological function. Similarly, high-stress environments with riskier living conditions may lead to economic disparities and locally specific cultural practices. Despite these limitations, human populations have lived, and thrived, in high altitudes environments for thousands of years. I investigate how theses environmental stressors impact reproductive functioning and fertility of indigenous populations living at high altitude, particularly in the Andes and Himalaya Mountains. In particular, I assess whether or not altitude-related stressors and reproductive behaviors contribute to lower fertility rates among high altitude populations. Through analysis of the physiological, behavioral, and genetic properties of males and females living at high attitude, I argue that fertility rates are under strong evolutionary control that offset altitude-induced sicknesses (hypobaric hypoxia) thus limiting variation in fecundity among high altitude populations.

History of the Study of Fertility at High Altitudes

Populations and small-scale societies have a long antiquity at high altitudes, yet much of our early knowledge of whether or not males and females had normal reproductive fitness comes from chronicles written by Europeans colonizing the Andes. Archaeological investigations in the Andes are numerous and are ongoing (Rademaker et al., 2014), yet are still in a very early stage in the Himalaya Mountains (Aldenderfer, 2011). Similarly, studies of the genetic components associated with high-altitude living are novel avenues of investigation among researchers working with populations in both the Andes and Himalayas (Beall, 2006, 2007). Given this incomplete picture, fertility studies conducted among populations living in other high altitudes (e.g. ovulation among Mongolian females) will also be presented when relevant. Because both the Andes and Himalaya Mountains are both extreme high altitude environments, I will explore research on reproductive fitness from both areas while recognizing that the entire picture elucidating the nature of fertility at high altitudes remains incomplete.

It is generally assumed that the human ancestral phenotype of oxygen transport system evolved mainly in environments with normal oxygen levels, or “normoxia” at sea level (Beall, 2006; Hochachka et al., 1998). Geological, vegetational, and archaeological analyses of hominin fossil sites in rift valleys formations in Ethiopia spanning approximately 3 million years indicate that hominid habitation sites were at an altitude of 500-600 meters above sea level (masl), well below an altitude thought to induce hypoxic stress (Bonnefille et al., 2004; Redfield et al., 2003; Quade et al., 2004). Thus, it is assumed that hominid evolution occurred under normoxia, and the corollary that high-altitude hypoxia is a physiological stress seems reasonable (Beall, 2006).

Laguna Cullicocha (4635 masl)

Laguna Cullicocha (4635 masl)

Altitude stress, medically known as hypobaric hypoxia, is cased by the fall in barometric pressure with increasing altitude, resulting in fewer oxygen molecules in a breath of air compared to sea level (Beall, 2006). Barometric pressure decreases with ascending altitude, decreasing oxygen availability in ambient air. Conditions are especially prevalent in the altiplano/puna, a treeless, tundra-like landscape higher than 4000 masl, with little fuel for campsites, and is an area that requires twice the sea-level caloric intake needed to maintain normal metabolic function (Marriot, 1996). Hypobaric hypoxia becomes progressively more severe with increasing altitude and stresses biological systems because a steady, uninterrupted supply of oxygen is required for metabolism in the mitochondria (Beall, 2006). Aside from supplemental oxygen or descent, there is no such strategy to avert the effects of environmental hypoxia (Gonzales, 2007; Julian, 2011). Though hypobaric hypoxia is the most pervasive physiologic challenge associated with high-altitude exposure, lower humidity, colder temperatures, increased solar radiation, and high energetic costs of subsistence that also accompany higher elevations may also threaten physiological well-being and reproductive behavior (Baker and Little, 1976).

Despite these stressors, human populations have occupied high altitudes for thousands of years. Archaeologists have uncovered ample evidence of human residency in high altitude environments as early as 20,000 years ago (Rademaker et al., 2014). The Tibetan Plateau of the Himalaya Mountains exhibits archaeological evidence of worked stone (Aldenderfer, 2011) and handprints and footprints (Quesang site) at 4200 masl (Zhang et al., 2002). Butchered animal bones, stone artifacts, and small-scale hearths dating from 14,600 to 7500 calendar years before the present (cal yr B.P.) at Jiangxigou 1 (~3200 masl); Heimahe 1 (~3200 masl) (Brantingham and Gao, 2006); at Xidatan 2 (~4300 masl) (Brantingham et al., 2013); and at Yeniugou (3800 masl) in the northeastern part of the plateau (Tang et al., 2013).

Tibetan Plateau (approx 4500 masl)

The earliest archaeological evidence of human occupation in the South American Andes dates to as early as 10,000 to 12,000 years BCE (Rademaker et al., 2014; Bonavia, 1991). The Pucuncho Basin in the southern Peruvian Andes contains the highest-altitude Pleistocene archaeological sites yet identified in the world (4355 masl) dating to 12,800-11,500 (Rademaker et al., 2014). Additional evidence of human occupation above 4000m of altitude with an antiquity of 10,000 years also has been found at the sites of Lauricocha, Huanuco (3850m) (Cardich, 1960) and Telarmachay, San Pedro de Cajas (4400m) in the Peruvian Andes (Bonavia, 1991).

Spanish chroniclers began to note the effect high altitude environments in the Andes had on living organisms during the 16th and 17th centuries early after colonization of the New World. Conquistadors such as Cieza de Leon (1553) described much about life among the Inca during the Spanish conquest and noted that the Inca had a surprisingly high fecundity rate. It was evident that Spaniards could produce offspring up to 3400 masl, yet infertility and stillbirths were frequent among Spaniards living in settlements around and above 4000 masl (Gonzales, 2007). Early chroniclers such as de la Vega and Cobo were of the opinion that the altitude effects on organisms were mainly attributable to the cold (de la Vega, 1609; Cobo, 1653). De la Calancha (1639) remarked in his chronicle that in Potosi (4300 m), in modern-day Bolivia, the natives had normal fertility and the offspring survived, whereas Spaniards encountered problems in having descendants. In fact, it was not until 53 years after then Spaniards settled the Andes did de la Calancha (1639) describe the birth and survival of the first child from two Spaniards in Potosi (4300 masl). Overall, chroniclers found that indigenous Andean females maintained capacity to reproduce while Spanish colonists were reportedly unable to carry fetus to full term or experienced high infant mortality rates.

Drawing by Guaman Poma de Ayala (1615/1616)

Given the discrepancy of fertility rates between newcomers to the Andes and the indigenous peoples, local biologists, biological anthropologists, and geneticists began to investigate the manner in which high altitude environments impact reproduction. Yet, many studies tend to produce contradicting results. The first fertility studies investigated the effects of altitude on fertility among sheep, cattle, cats, and rabbits, and demonstrated that short-term exposure to high altitude resulted in temporary infertility (Monge, 1942, Monge and Mori- Chávez, 1942; Monge et al., 1945).Studies in the late 20th century have shown that fertility is lower in the economically underdeveloped areas of the Andes than in the more prosperous Spanish-speaking parts (Collins, 1983). Studies documenting the fecundity rate (as calculated by the number of viable offspring per female) among Peruvian highlanders has found to be from one to two births less than that of lowland Peruvians of the same ethnic background. In fact, highland natives who move to low altitudes show markedly higher rates of fertility than their counterparts who remain in the highlands (Abelson, 1976). Conversely, studies have also noted that population fertility appears to be unaffected among natives to high altitude environments (Hoff, 1984). A retrospective hospital-based study performed on women of La Paz (3600 m), Bolivia shows that high altitude does not impair fertility (Suarez-Morales, 1967). In fact, the number of viable offspring born per female in the Andes has also been documented to be higher amongst high-altitude populations compared to those at sea level, suggesting that high altitude does not reduce fecundity in human populations (Gonzales, 2007). Additionally, scholars have noted that highlanders of both the Andes and Himalayas have distinctive morphological and physiological characteristics that seemed adaptive in the sense that they might offset hypoxia stress (Baker and Little, 1976; Monge, 1978). Given the complex and sometimes conflicting nature of the fertility data, considerations of the physiological mechanisms of reproduction as well as behavioral and genetic profiles will elucidate the nature of fertility at high altitudes.

Physiological and Behavioral Impacts on Fertility and Reproduction

At high altitude, the oxygen transport system must offset ambient hypoxia in order to maintain tissue oxygen levels to support maintenance, growth and development, and reproduction. Altitude-induced stress, hypoxia in particular, may act to affect the process of reproduction at several stages: formation of gametes and gametogenesis, the ovarian cycle and menstruation, birth weights, still birth rates, infant mortality, post-partum behaviors, and age of menopause.  Assessing how hypoxic stress impacts fertility alone is problematic because fertility is also affected by many cultural, social, and behavioral factors. Populations residing at high altitudes may have less developed health, social, and communication infrastructures than those residing at sea level. These reproductive categories will be explored while considering socioeconomic disparities and cultural practices impacting fertility. Over the next few weeks, I will address each of these reproductive systems beginning with development and formation of gametes and testosterone levels.

Development and Formation of Gametes and Testosterone Levels

Delay in the development of and abnormal formation of gametes may also impact fertility. In particular, research has documented whether or not male reproductive functions are negatively affected during and after high altitude sojourns. Early studies conducted on guinea pigs taken to Morochocha, Peru (4500m), observed degenerative alterations in the seminiferous tubules, which serve a crucial role in the production of male gametes (Guerra-Garcia, 1959).

Exposure to hypoxia and physical stress of high altitudes may induce reversible spermatogenic and/or Leydig cell dysfunction, a condition that decreases testosterone production (Saxena, 1995). Analysis of gamete production conducted on three subjects who trekked for 21-24 days between 5100-6700 masl revealed an increased rate of abnormal sperm shape (Abramsson et al., 1982), which would present an important problem if the subjects wanted children (Okumura et al., 2003). Additionally, scholars have observed that sperm counts had not recovered 3 months after subjects returned from the expedition. Yet, all subjects had normal gamete production and formation after 2 years (Okumura et al., 2003). Okumura and colleagues (2003) also observed an increase in abnormally shaped sperm 1 month after the subjects returned to sea level. Sperm shape had nearly recovered to the pre-expedition state after 3 months (Okumura et al, 2003).

Mount Everest (8848 masl)

In addition to hypoxia, physical stress while trekking and carrying heavy loads may also contribute to the initial decline in testosterone levels (Okumura et al., 2003). Endocrine tests conducted on the three subjects revealed slightly lower levels of testosterone in the blood 1 month after the expedition and decreased still further after 3 months. After 2 years, testosterone levels were normal. The subjects in the study also complained of erectile dysfunction after returning from the expedition, which may have been partly due to decreased testosterone (Okumura et al., 2003).

Semen analysis and recorded reproductive hormone levels taken from seven male mountaineers trekking through the Himalayas (approximately 5900 masl) found that physical exercise at high altitudes is associated with a testicular dysfunction leading to a reduced sperm concentration probably through an altered spermiation (Pelliccione et al., 2011). Interestingly, the physical exercise improved the male’s overall body composition, which increased testosterone levels after the expedition (Pelliccione et al., 2011).

In sum, studies have demonstrated short-term exposure to high altitudes negatively impact male gamete formation and testosterone production, ultimately affecting his ability to reproduce. It should be noted, however, that male gametes production and testosterone levels return to normal once he returns to sea level for several months to 1-2 years.

These are very high altitudes where people do not reside. Historically and in the archaeological record, however, there is evidence that people would take occasional sojourns to high mountain summits in the Andes. Spanish chronicler Cobo (1653) described how the Inka embarked on ritual pilgrimages (qhapaq huachas) to mountain summits were they would leave female and male children of exemplary physical perfection as immolate tribute to the Inka Empire and mountain gods. Freeze-dried bodies of these sacrificed children have been recovered from mountain summits up to 5200 masl in Chile, Argentina, and Peru (Reinhard and Ceruti, 2000). Physiologically, even brief sojourns to extreme altitudes has a minor impact on the reproductive system.

Ovarian Cycle and Menstruation

Ovulatory disorders are a major cause of infertility (Urman et al., 2006). While follicle phase ranges vary among women, a luteal phases lasting for less than 2 weeks is considered a “luteal defect” due to low levels of the hormone progesterone and an insufficient production of uterine lining, which inhibits a female’s reproductive abilities. Fecundability may be correlated to cycle length, which determines the number of opportunities for conception in a given time span (Wood and Weinstein, 1988). Because ovarian follicle growth is characterized by cell growth and rapid cell divisions, hypothetically, hypoxia may slow this process and thereby disrupt phase lengths (Wood and Weinstein, 1988).

Recent studies have suggested that short-term exposure to high-altitude hypobaric hypoxia may negatively impact the development and function of the corpus luteum. Parraguez and colleagues (2013) examined the corpus luteum among sheep living in high altitudes and found a significant decrease the growth and function of the corpus luteum, which resulted in decreased fertility (Parraguez et al., 2013). However, it is important to note that sheep used in the study were Creole ewes, a mixed breed developed from Churra and Manchega Spanish breeds brought to the Americas by Spanish colonists and therefore do not have a long ancestry in high altitude environments (Parraguez et al., 2013).

Among indigenous Aymara women on the altiplano (3800+ masl) of the Peruvian and Bolivia Andes, Vitzthum and colleagues (2000) reported a mean cycle length of 29.1 days (n = 612 cycles, 191 women). Cycle length among nomadic herders from the Mongolian high steppe (~1,500 masl) was 27.8 days, with the mean follicular-phase length averaging 14.7 days, and mean luteal-phase length 13.2 days (Jurado et al., 2009). According to Vitzthum (2009), neither the Aymara nor Mongolian cycle ranges were particularly low or high compared to cycle length of female populations worldwide. If hypoxia does slow follicle growth, the effect is insignificant (Vitzthum, 2013).

Differential hormone profiles, specifically time between the gonadotropin peak/release of luteinizing hormone (LH) and ovulation, between high and low altitude populations may indicate an ovulatory disorder. Escudero et al. (1996) compared samples from Lima (150 m) (N=10) and Cerro de Pasco (4340) (N=10), Peru. Females in Cerro de Pasco had smaller pre-ovulatory follicle diameters and lower estrogen production during the late follicle phase. Estradiol levels only increased 80% between Cerro de Pasco females compared to 137.3% among females in Lima. Additionally, the luteinizing hormone peaked earlier among women in Cerro de Pasco compared to women in Lima. Yet, both groups of females exhibited the same duration of the luteal phase and the same endometrium measurements between high and low altitudes (Escudero et al., 1996). Escudero and colleagues (1996) conclude that the differences in hormone profiles during menstrual cycle between high altitude and sea level samples are a result of low barometric pressure.

Conversely, Vitzthum and colleagues (2001a) compared ovulation rates between indigenous “middle-class” women in La Paz (3650 masl), Bolivia, and rural women living outside La Paz in El Alto (4150 masl), and reported that the rural participants had lower ovulation rates compared to the urban middle-class women, indicating that the difference in ovulation rates is not attributed to hypoxia because the two samples reside at similar altitudes (Vitzthum et al., 2001a, 2009). It is possible that overall health and socioeconomic status may impact overall fertility, yet the differences in ovulation lengths between the middle class and rural women may reflect normal variation (Vitzthum et al., 2001). The differences in ovulation may be correlated to socioeconomic status; ultimately, however, the high altitudes and sea level samples fall within the normal ranges of phase length and do not negatively impact reproduction.

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Quade, J.; Levin, N.; Semaw, S.; Stoug, D.; Renne, P.; Rogers, M.; and Simpson, S.; (2004). Paleoenvironments of the earliest stone toolmakers. Gona, Ethiopia. GSN Buletin, 116, 1529-1544.

Rademaker, K.; Hodgins, G.; Moore, K; Zarrillo, S.; Miller, C.; Bromley, G.R.M.; Keach, P.; Reid, D.A.; Alvarez, W.Y.; Sandweiss, D.H. (2014) Science, 346, 466-469.

Redfield, T.F.; Wheeler, R.H.; and Often, M. (2003). A kinematic model for the development of the Afar Depression and its paleogeographic implications. Earth and Planetary Science Letters, 216, 383-398.

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Forensic anthropology Methodologies: Excavations of Mass Grave sites with Comingled Skeletonized Remains

This week I will explore how forensic anthropologists determine whether or not a human rights violation occurred by utilizing particular techniques developed by forensic practitioners as well as interdisciplinary methods used by archaeologists. Forensic archaeologists employ a variety of methods when excavating mass graves, paying particular attention to whether or not individuals were buried or reburied multiple times by examining the placement and position of the victims’ remains, the associated artifacts, and taphonomic changes to the bone. Collection of evidence and detailed description of mass graves are necessary to reconstruct the events that transpired and ultimately to prosecute the alleged perpetrators of war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide.

Forensic teams investigating human rights violations enlist the help of a forensic archaeologist, who is trained in identifying how a gravesite was formed, filled, and concealed, along with taphonomic alterations to the gravesite and the humans remains.

There are several questions a forensic archaeologist must answer while excavating mass grave sites

How many bodies it takes to constitute a “mass” grave?

-Need only two or more bodies

-Actual examples in Croatia created after the disintegration of the former Yugoslavia: 3-750 bodies

-Yet, a grave containing one individual does not necessarily mean that a human rights violation did not occur

So what constitutes a “mass” grave? 

Main definitive factor: nature of the body deposition and manner of which bodies were handled that reflect disrespect. They are distinct from other mass burials in which bodies are carefully placed, indicating a degree of care or at least forethought

How do forensic teams describe gravesites? Is there a gravesite typology?

There is a general typology forensic archaeologists follow when identifying, describing, and excavating mass gravesites

Execution site: location in which multiple individuals are executed; possibly see skeletal materials, bullet cartridges, shredded clothing, human blood and tissue fragments visible on either the ground surface or obscured by grave put or a similar feature intended to inter the human remains and other relevant evidence of a crime

Temporary surface deposition sites: characterized by the presence of residual clothing, personal effects, blood, and bone fragments; the body or bodies were once at this site, and then moved to another location after execution, possibly in an attempt to better hide the crime. Skeletal remains may exhibit taphonomic changes (i.e. weathering, sun-bleaching, insect cases, carnivore damage).

Primary inhumation site: An intentionally constructed pit in which to dispose bodies; typically contains multiple individuals who have been executed and interred soon after death and who share a related cause and manner of death; note that the PIS may be located far from where the victims were killed; human remains disposed in a disorderly manner and associated with evidence of execution, such as bullets and shrapnel; there should be no taphonomic changes, as there should have been no disruption of the natural decomposition process (expect to see “feather-edging” when the peripheral bodies of the bod mass are less preserved than those in the core of the assemblage)

Secondary inhumation site: Remains are removed from the primary inhuman site and moved to a clandestinely created grave; typically, transporting the materials usually results in disarticulation of the skeletal resulting in a disarticulated and commingled remains in a secondary inhumation site

Robbed or looted inhumation sites: Once the remains have been removed from a primary inhumation gravesite, the gravesite is then defined as a “robbed or looted inhumation site.” Usually the perpetrators clandestinely remove the remains for the purpose of creating a secondary inhumation site known to a minimum number of informants. The RLIS will include: clothing, hair, ballistics, and other items small enough to be left behind

This type of grave in particular is important to international tribunals because it assists in linking and reconstructing the sequence of events experienced by the victims

How do forensic archaeologists handle skeletonized human remains?

An additional goal is to maximize collection of disarticulated and commingled skeletal remains in the best possible condition

There are two primary excavation methods: pedestaling and stratigraphic, or “basin” method. The pedestal method focuses on exposing the body or bodies; stratigraphic, or basin method in which the excavator maintains the integrity of the grave features (i.e. grave walls) and its contents

Tuller and Duric (2006) found that the stratigraphic method 1.) had a lower number of unassociated bones; 2.) better maintained the provenience and articulation of remains and 3.) higher recovery rate of smaller bones compared to the team using the pedestal method

Case Study: “Ethnic Cleansing” of Northwestern Bosnia

The anthropological protocol implemented during the investigation mass graves is illustrated from the excavations of mass graves from the “ethnic cleansing” of Northwestern Bosnia in 1992. Hundreds of individuals were disposed in an open cast mine in Northwest Bosnia after being removed by a mechanical excavator from a primary burial site. The perpetrators relocated the remains to a new site, an open cast mine in northwestern Bosnia, and were not particularly systemic or careful with the exhumation, resulting in unnecessary disarticulation of the remains (Baraybar and Gasior, 2006). In the second burial site, one of the walls in the pit was blown up with explosives, causing an avalanche of rubble and rocks that covered the slope, which damaged and caused mixture of the bodies (Baraybar and Gasior, 2006). When the Bosniak Commission on Missing Persons excavated the bodies in 2001, it was crucial for the forensic practitioners to recognize that the final burial site was, in fact, not the primary burial pit and that the remains were interred multiple times and were even subject to taphonomic changes not related to the actual crime (Baraybar and Gasior, 2006). Additionally, the stratigraphic, “basining” excavation method of the primary burial site revealed that the grave pit itself was man-made, suggesting that the disposal of the individuals was premeditated and the perpetrators attempted to hide their transgression (Baraybar and Gasior, 2006).

In sum, archaeological field methods combined with the goals of forensic anthropology specialty affords practitioners and individuals investigating crimes against humanity the opportunity to scientifically investigate mass gravesites. Reconstructing the events that transpired and determining whether or not a mass killing was premeditated together may provide strong evidentiary support for a crime against humanity.

See articles for more information: 

Baraybar, P., & Gasior, M. (2006). Forensic Anthropology and the Most Probable Cause of Death in Cases of Violations Against International Humanitarian Law: An Example from Bosnia and Herzegovina. Journal of Forensic Science , 51 (1), 103-108.

Jessee, E., & Skinner, M. (2005). A typology of mass grave and mass grave-related sites. Forensic Science International , 152, 55-59.

Schmitt, S. (2002). Mass graves and the collection of forensic evidence: genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity. In W. Haglund, & M. Sorg (Eds.), Advances in Forensic Taphonomy: Method, Theory and Archaeological Perspectives (pp. 277-292). New York: CRC Press.

Skinner, M. (1987). Planning the archaeological recovery of evidence from recent mass graves. Forensic Science International , 34, 267-287.

Skinner, M., Alempijevic, D., & Djuric-Srejic, M. (2003). Guidelines for international forensic bio-archaeology monitors of mass grave exhumantions. Forensic Science International , 134, 81-92.

Tuller, H., & Duric, M. (2006). Keeping the pieces together: Comparions of mass grave excavation methodology. Forenic Science International , 156, 192-200.

the individuals was premeditated and the perpetrators attempted to hide their transgression (Baraybar and Gasior, 2006).

In sum, archaeological field methods combined with the goals of forensic anthropology specialty affords practitioners and individuals investigating crimes against humanity the opportunity to scientifically investigate mass gravesites. Reconstructing the events that transpired and determining whether or not a mass killing was premeditated together may provide strong evidentiary support for a crime against humanity.

This week in anthropology, forensics, bioarchaeology, archaeology, and human evolution

Differences in core body temperature between men and women 

Lead in Rome’s water was 100 times higher than natural levels 

Study finds that Americans have more skepticism than confidence in scientific theories that are farther away from bodies in scope and time: global warming, the age of the Earth and evolution and the Bing Bang

After death, resurrection through decomposition and purification of the body 

Two 26th dynasty tombs unearthed near Minya, Egypt 

Humans may have dispersed out of Africa earlier than thought 

What is anthropology? 

Darwin’s tragic error: How Hitler and the Nazi’s destroyed evolution and propagated racism 

West Suffolk: Roman skeletons discovered by Anglian Water in Barnham, Bardwell, Pakenham and Rougham

A tomb of 49,000 year-old Neanderthal bones discovered in El Sidron, a remote, mountainous region of Northern Spain, leads to a compelling investigation to solve a double mystery: How did this group of Neanderthals die? (video) 

Scientists use CT scan to examine Inca mummy, the Ice Maiden, discovered in Argentina 

15 ways to tell if a science news story is hogwash 

Students in Oklahoma know less about evolution after taking biology 

Where Ancient Romans poisoned by lead?

Examining the Egyptian mummy, Tamut 

New support for Southern dispersal theory (out of Africa along South and Southeast Asia) 

The mind bending power of color, finally getting scientific notice? 

Suspected mass grave excavated in Serbia, believed to have remains of 250 Albanians from Kosovo War 

Creationists say government, Smithsonian is pushing “religion of naturalism” and “religion of evolution” on students 

Swedes open coffin of 850-year-old King Erik 

Everything from 4500-year-old site in California was excavated and then reburied

Using remote surveillance to monitor “uncontacted” Brazilian societies

Women undergoing foot surgery so they can wear designer shoes comfortably 

Stonehenge rock source identified 

Scientists discover little genetic variation among Neanderthals 

Education may insulate the brain against traumatic injury 

Ebola outbreak, crisis for primates and humans 

Durham academic finds 3,000 year old skeleton with clogged arteries 


Anthropology, Archaeology, Bioarchaeology, and Forensic Anthropology News from this week

Buildings made of bones from around the world

Buildings and walls of archaeological site Pompeii crumbling and collapsing 

Fascinating artifacts from the Viking world 

Graves and inhumations discovered at Late Iron Age/Early Roman site in France 

Rise in birth defect anencephaly, a neural tube defect,  among infants in Washington state puzzles epidemiologists

Mass grave of executed adult Viking males found in Dorset suffered from diseases weren’t warriors but mercenaries or peasants

Collection of 9000 year old Neolithic spirit masks to go on display in Israel 

Heated scientific debate between paleoanthropologist Drs. Tim White and Manuel Dominguez-Rodrigo about human evolution on the savanna; when is scientific debate vitriolic?

Chimu-Inca artifacts found in tomb, believed to belong to nobel musicians and weavers, showing that music was important part of life and death in Late Horizon coastal Peru

18th Dynasty tomb found in Luxor 

Evolution useful for explaining human alcohol consumption habits 

Eating insects the new “paleo-diet”? 

JPAC’s methods for identifying and repatriating humans remains from lost military personal outdated ?

Early Pacific Islanders and New Zealanders enjoyed a natural, wild diet 

New section of Inca road discovered outside Arequipa, Peru, may have served as route from Cusco to coast

Genome analysis reveals origins of genetic adaptations for high altitude in Tibetans 

Amazing women in anthropology

Forensic anthropologists uncover mass grave in Somalia 

“Little Pompeii” unearthed 40 miles northeast of Venice: Flood destroyed and preserved Roman funerary complex 

Is my research relevant: The Barstool Test

I’ve previously discussed the necessity for prospective graduate students to articulate how their research must contribute to the field as well as the greater good of the public. Last time it was mostly me rambling about my grad school-related fears, this time, however, I’m concerned about the relevance my research has outside the field. My fears of academic irrelevance recently resurfaced after reading archaeologist Dr. Michael Smith’s blog and a book chapter he recommended called From Studious Irrelevancy to Consilient Knowledge: Modes of Scholarship and Cultural Anthropology (Pascal Boyer). Boyer argues that cultural anthropology is, “too busy with obscure academic fads and self-inspection” to address public debates, such as gay marriage or immigration (114-115), and, ultimately, “has gradually narrowed its focus to a few obscure problems,” with the goal to make novel, salient connections because, “saying something new…is what matters.” (123). Smith aptly remarks that you could easily put “archaeology” in place of “cultural anthropology” as archaeologists face similar issues.

Additionally, today in Anthropology News, contributor and lecturer Angela C Jenks asks the field to “reimagine” the typical anthropology student in the classroom by creating assignments that allow students to apply anthropology’s holistic approach to contemporary social problems.  There seems to be a disconnect between the anthropologist and the public. We need to eloquently and succinct communicate how anthropology, and its subfields, is useful for understanding and hopefully remedying social and economic issues.

The goal to contextualize our research to address a greater issue is noble, yet, utterly overwhelming. How on earth can I make a connection between research brought to you from a random tomb in the middle of nowhere South America? I jest, but still, my fears are legitimate, and in order to get funding (esp from NSF), research ideas have to be needed, appreciated, and easily communicated. I have been so immersed in my world of academic jargon and concepts that it almost seems like I can speak another language. If I want to be a part of this scholarly world, it is imperative that I can articulate my research and its relevance to the specialists and novices. Specialists are intimidating and basically terrifying, but I at least feel semi-confident in my ability to speak to them.

The novices are who worry me. I didn’t used to be as worried as most people are aware of archaeology and think it’s pretty cool. Even those people who ask me if I am Indiana Jones or like digging up dinosaurs present a (desperate) need for my field!

But I’ve recently discovered that there are several people who, shall we say, need more convincing. So while bartending last fall in Peru, I developed something similar to the “90-second elevator speech” that I called the Barstool Test; an exercise that required me to determine (1) if I can articulate my research goals in a coherent manner to any individual who sat down at the bar, (2) whether these individuals find these research goals relevant. I would only have the duration of the beer/cocktail/quesadillas to state my research, capture their interest, and ultimately explain why I thought such questions were relevant. It sounds a little ridiculous, why on earth would I bother these weary backpackers? But I engaged in the “backpacker small talk” on a daily basis: “where did you just come from? Where are you going next? Where are you from? Did you like Cusco?” It was a little repetitive, so most people welcomed a change from the normal dialogue.

In general, I met a surprising range of people…young artists living a penniless existence; recently liberated cooperate captives who were taking some time off to find themselves; and even academics who finished with graduate school and wanted to take time off before starting their Phd or applying for jobs. I met someone who studied molecular biology and was applying postdoc position in South Africa to work with AIDS patients. I became friends with a girl who graduated from high school and decided that she wasn’t ready for college, so she was volunteering in a local orphanage instead. All sorts of people passed through this bar, with different goals, backgrounds, worldviews, you name it. Everyone found archaeology fascinating. Granted, most of these people came to Peru to see Machu Picchu, so you would think that these people had some interest in archaeology. I thought I had an unfair advantage.

Or so I thought.

One afternoon, I was working the bar when this seemingly friendly and outgoing guy came into the bar. I asked him his name, what he did, etc etc. He was from London and worked as a consultant to an oil company. He then asked me what I did, so I gave him my, “I’m an bioarchaeologist” blurb. Andes, bones, empires, tombs, cultural heritage, historic preservation, tourism, museums, etc. etc.

I couldn’t believe what he said next, “I personally don’t understand the purpose or appeal of archaeology.” I thought he was kidding, I thought this was a prime example of dry British humor, but he was serious. I had to say, “Right, tell me, did you enjoy your trip to Machu Picchu, you know, the most well-known archaeological ruin IN THE WORLD.” Maybe he was just one of those people who doesn’t really travel foreign places to experience “the other”, but just wants a picture of him standing in front of the famous pyramid/cathedral/temple/volcano/tower and updates his status from his iPhone complaining that no one speaks English while standing in line at the nearest McDonalds/Starbucks. Luckily, other patrons and the bar staff all soon realized that he was a jerk, so I didn’t feel like I completely failed the Barstool Test.

Guy rushing through Raphael Rooms recording everything he saw rather than take his time and enjoy the art.

Guy rushing through Raphael Rooms recording everything he saw rather than take his time and enjoy the art.

I have numerous memories of positive experiences: people who were interested in my research, asked questions about archaeology, and others who took recommendations from me to visit lesser known sites. But the memory of that guy will stay with me forever. It’s annoying, true, but that encounter taught me that I might be pitching my ideals and goals to people who couldn’t care less. Do I need to rewrite my 90-second elevator speech or simply ignore those who refuse to have their minds changed? That is the challenge we anthropologist face.