Ancient Globalization in Peru

Erica Creager presented her research poster at NAU's 2013 Undergraduate Symposium. Photo: IDEA Lab, Monica Saaty.

Erica Creager is a junior at Northern Arizona University (NAU) majoring in anthropology. She presented her poster, “Stable Isotopic Evidence of Ancient Globalization in the Cotahuasi Valley of Peru, at NAU's 2013 Undergraduate Symposium. Her research project straddles the fields of anthropology, archaeology, and biochemistry.

undergrad symposium

The Wari Empire flourished in modern-day Peru during the Middle Horizon period of Peruvian civilizations, 500 – 1000 CE. The site now called Tenahaha was surrounded by this empire but probably isolated from it due to its location on the slopes of the deepest canyon on Earth, Cotahuasi Valley. Corina Kellner, an Assistant Professor of Anthropology at NAU and a specialist in ancient Andean societies, worked extensively on the site from 2005 to 2007. With permission from the Peruvian Institute of Culture, she collected tooth and bone samples from various burial grounds. Creager was invited to work in Kellner's laboratory and study the samples.

Teeth hold cultural cues

Stable carbon and oxygen isotopes can tell a lot about a person. Different kinds of food have different levels of stable—that is, nonradioactive—isotopes of carbon, and different areas of the planet have characteristic levels of stable isotopes of oxygen. By testing these levels in a person's teeth, one can tell what they ate and where they lived when the teeth were forming. Creager found that teeth in remains from burial grounds west of town [Tenahaha] had carbon levels indicating a primarily maize diet, while those from east of town seemed to have had a potato diet. Meanwhile oxygen levels did not vary significantly. All the people whose samples Creager studied grew up in the same place.

“For a long time, bones in archaeology were kind of looked over.... What we're finding now is these actually have so much information that they can give us.”

In addition to working with the samples, Creager studied first-hand descriptions of the burial sites, including Kellner's. The remains in the west burials were arranged haphazardly; those on the east were carefully arranged and sealed in. Meanwhile, artifacts and architecture in Tenahaha resembled that of the Wari, but were not made of the same materials. Justin Jennings, another specialist in Peruvian archaeology who works at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, has put forward the hypothesis that the inhabitants of Tenahaha were subject to forces of globalization. Although they had no direct contact with the Wari, they still felt indirect influences of the more complex outside culture. In other words, the Wari-like artifacts were, Creager says, “fake Gucci.”

A hypothesis of globalization

Creager believes her results support this hypothesis of globalization:  The data indicate a society with the beginnings of a class system. Could this class system have come about through indirect contact with the Wari? Creager thinks it's possible that “the reason there are these differences in such a small community happened because of the Wari, because people [thought] …, 'Oh, we want to be like them. Well, some people can be like them a little better than others.'”

This is the sort of information that bioarchaeology can tell us. According to Creager, “For a long time, bones in archaeology were kind of looked over.... What we're finding now is these actually have so much information that they can give us.” Though many think of human bones as a reminder of death; she prefers to find in them the stories of people's lives.

--Bethany Williams