By studying the hair of mummies excavated from South America nearly a century ago, researchers have put together the staples of their paleodiets. And it looks something like seafood, corn, and beans. The findings were published in the March issue of the Journal of Archaeological Science.
First excavated in the 1920s, the Paracas Necropolis of Wari Kayan is one of the most famous archaeological cemeteries in Peru. When they were first discovered, each mummy was bound in a seated position and wrapped in a bundle of ornate textiles such as embroidered garments. They were also found with a variety of burial items ranging from baskets to weapons. The region’s ancient textiles (an example is pictured above) and geoglyphs are well studied, though the bioarchaeology of the Paracas culture has been overlooked. This field researches past peoples’ experiences with health and disease.
Now, combining bioarchaeology and biogeochemistry approaches, an international trio led by Kelly Knudson of Arizona State University examined the diets of 14 of these mummies, some of whom lived nearly 2,000 years ago. “By using small samples of hair from these mummies, we can learn what they ate in the months and weeks before they died, which is a very intimate look at the past,” Knudson explains in a news release. In addition to two to 10 hair samples from each mummy obtained through museums, the team also looked at two artifacts made of human hair.
Based on their nitrogen and carbon isotope analysis of keratin, during the last months of their lives, these Paracas individuals primarily ate marine products and a mix of C4 and C3 plants like maize and beans, respectively.
In addition to health, diet also indicates where people live and how they go about their daily lives—farming, fishing, hunting, or gathering. Based on the isotopic hair data, the (mostly male) individuals were geographically stable and living along the coast; or if they did travel into the highlands, they continued to eat marine products.
Future research might involve more females and youths, and Knudson’s team plans to examine artifacts and mortuary evidence to build some context for their isotopic hair data.
Images: Arizona State (top), K.J. Knudson et al., 2015 Elsevier