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George Mason Students Researching Anthropology in Peru

A group of Mason anthropology students spent six weeks this past summer on the Peruvian desert coast studying the skeletal remains of about 300 people. Photo by Haagen Klaus.

Anthropology Students Go on Site to Peru Tombs

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

Six George Mason University anthropology students who studied with Mason bio-archaeologist 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 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,” says Hilarie Huley, a graduate anthropology student.

The group expected to study about 150 pre-excavated skeletons, with 70 preserved well enough for meaningful examination, says Klaus, an archaeologist, bio-anthropologist, and professor in 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 says.

“The skeleton literally embodies the lives and ways in which we live. 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.”

Bio-archaeologist Haagen Klaus

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

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

Bio-archaeologists conduct research by examining how culture, behavior, history, and evolution shape diet, disease, growth, and physiological stress in human remains, says Klaus.