Mummies of Peru And Bolivia

The Naked Scientists spoke to Dr Lawrence Owens, Birkbeck College, University of London
17 September 2006

Interview with 

Dr Lawrence Owens, Birkbeck College, University of London


Kat - Now you've been to some really exotic places, Peru and Bolivia. I'm of the opinion that scientists work in these places because they want a nice holiday, but I understand that you've been doing some work. What have you been up to?

Lawrence - I have been doing some work. I was very lucky to go to Peru a few years ago to analyse some mummies they've discovered near Lima. I've been going there for the last few summers now to analyse all the remains of the something like 80 000 burials in this huge site that we have.

Kat - So are these mummies like Egyptian mummies? Wrapped in bandages and stuck in a tomb?

Lawrence - They're a bit slack at doing mummies in Peru. In Egypt they did all kinds of things: they sucked the brain out through the nose and all manner of horrible things. But in Peru they just buried them in a rather slack sort of way. But being in Peru, it's very dry and they preserved very nicely.

Kat - So what can we find out about ancient Peruvians? How old are we talking?

Lawrence - Well these ones vary from the Incas which are fairly recent at around 1400 AD, back to about the second century AD. But of course mummies in Peru go back much further than that, but in my site they just cover that period. Anyone you can learn by talking to someone you can learn from a mummy because your body, your bones and your teeth betray you completely. Nothing is sacred.

Kat - So what sorts of things have you found out and how do you do it?

Lawrence - You can tell, for example, exactly where somebody is from. You can tell it from their teeth, the shape of their teeth and their skull, and you can look at things like the isotopes in their teeth. You can look at the content of their bones and collagen to see the part of the world they came from. You can look at their health and their life and how sick they were when they were children. You can also see the kind of diet they had and, of course, what led to their demise. There's virtually nothing you couldn't find out from someone.

Kat - Could you find out what they did, such as occupation?

Lawrence - Yeah we've found these massive guys who are obviously into construction and so on. They had huge and brawny arms. Arnold Schwarzenegger would have paled in significance. These guys were massive.

Kat - So Peruvian builders basically.

Lawrence - Yes they were massive. Pyramid builders in Egypt show the same kind of thing. People who did sewing an ceramics had unusually strong hands. We know that they did this because they were buried with the tools of their trade, so everything is buried with them. You can also work out some very tragic stories, such as finding people that have died in childbirth. We know how old they were and can work out the sixteen years old was a very common time to have children. So there's virtually nothing that you can't find out.

Kat - How do you find differences between the different cultures in Peru? Are there distinctive cultures?

Lawrence - That's the thing about cultures: what's a culture really mean? It's very hard to define. These groups lived in a very defined area and very often their habits evolved in a single direction. For instance the Nazca, you must have seen the Nazca lines, had a very hard time of it because it was so desiccated. They used these things as a ritual and magical way of getting it to rain. The Incas were massive empire builders and they built roads across the nation. There are dozens of other tribes and groups in the Amazon living their different ways, so they were very distinct and we're talking over very large periods of time.


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