Mason students study 300 skeletal remains in Peru during summer research program

Six George Mason University anthropology students who studied with bioarchaeologist Haagen Klaus got more than they bargained for when they came to coastal Peru to examine skeletal remains at several ancient sites.

The students spent six weeks this summer on the Peruvian desert coast studying the skeletal remains of about 300 people, more than double the amount they were anticipating.

They examined remains from eight sites in the area, but home base was a thatched outdoor structure adjacent to a 4,600-year-old pyramid, also known as a huaca.

“One of the things most fascinating about the field work is, not only were the individuals from this area, but for them this ancient huaca was of cultural significance,” said Hilarie Huley, a graduate anthropology student.

The group expected to study only about 150 pre-excavated skeletons with 70 of those preserved well enough for meaningful examination, said Klaus, an archaeologist, bioanthropologist, and professor in George Mason’s College of Humanities and Social Sciences. Klaus also heads the Lambayeque Valley Biohistory Project where the students worked.

The Lambayeque Valley is a center of civilization and a natural laboratory where “big picture” questions about how societies live, die and regenerate are answered, Klaus said.

This year, the project achieved a number of “firsts” in the history of Andean archaeology, including the first large-scale bioarchaeological study of the social causes and biological consequences of the dawn of civilization and the analysis of the skeletons from 16 tombs from Sipán, which are the richest tombs ever found anywhere in the Americas.

Anthropology graduate student Jaclyn Thomas came to Peru to collect data for her thesis. While there she examined the remains of some 120 children for signs of early childhood stress such as a nutritional deficiency or disease.

“I did find a 30 to 40 percent prevalence of the defect I was looking for,” she said.

“I fell in love with Andean archaeology,” she added, and she plans to return and do more research.

Bioarchaeologists conduct research by examining how culture, behavior, history and evolution shape diet, disease, growth and physiological stress in human remains, Klaus said.

“The skeleton literally embodies the lives and ways in which we live,” he said. “If you know how to read those clues … and you are able to combine that with the archaeology, you have the most detailed and humanized windows to the ancient past.”