Researchers examine diet of 2000 year old Paracas people

Paracas textile 300–200 BC. Image: Arizona State University

Paracas textile 300–200 BC. Image: Arizona State University

A research team have been able to study the diets of 14 Paracas individuals dating back almost 2,000 years. The mummified bodies excavated nearly a century ago are yielding new information through work conducted in Arizona State University’s Archaeological Chemistry Laboratory.

The findings were recently published in the Journal of Archaeological Science.

Paracas Necropolis of Wari Kayan

When first discovered in 1927 by Peruvian archaeologist Julio Tello, each mummy was bound in a seated position, and accompanied by burial goods such as baskets or weapons, and wrapped in a cone-shaped bundle of textiles, including finely embroidered garments. They were unearthed from one of the most famous sites in Peru: the Paracas Necropolis of Wari Kayan, two densely populated collections of burials off the southern coast. The region has a rich archaeological history that includes intricate textiles and enormous geoglyphs, yet it has been relatively overlooked for bioarchaeological research.

Investigating diet

With support from the National Science Foundation, ASU associate professor Kelly Knudson and her colleagues are attempting to rectify that. The researchers used hair samples – between two and 10 sequential samples for each mummy, in addition to two hair artefacts – to investigate the diets of Paracas’ ancient people. They focused on carbon and nitrogen isotope analysis of keratin to determine what these individuals ate in the final stages of their lives.

Diet not only provides insight into health, but can also indicate where people lived and travelled, as well as offer clues about their daily lives by pointing to whether their foods were sourced from farming, fishing, hunting or gathering.

During the last months of their lives, the Paracas individuals appear to have eaten primarily marine products and C4 and C3 plants, such as maize and beans. Also, they were either geographically stable or, if they travelled between the inland highlands and coastal regions, continued to consume marine products.

Applying science to older museum collections

What is exciting to me about this research is that we are using new scientific techniques to learn more about mummies that were excavated almost 100 years ago. It is a great application of new science to older museum collections,” says Knudson, who is in ASU’s School of Human Evolution and Social Change in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

Knudson, who is affiliated with the school’s Centre for Bioarchaeological Research, explained why it is so important to learn about the lived experiences of people who existed long 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 said.

Since the sampled individuals were mostly male, Knudson and her colleagues suggest that future research may involve more females and youths. The researchers also plan to further examine artefacts and mortuary evidence to build context for their isotopic data.