Peruvian Mummies and Animal Domestication

Dr Chris and Dr Kat chat to archaeologist Lawrence Owens about his latest excavations of Peruvian Mummies and Keith Dobney about his research into the domestication of animals...
04 March 2007
Presented by Chris Smith, Helen Scales


This week we unwrap the secrets of ancient mummies from Peru with the help of London University's Lawrence Owens, find out where domestic animals and pets came from with Keith Dobney from the University of Durham, and in kitchen science Dave explores the science of fires and fuels by blowing up some custard.

In this episode

- Peruvian excavation

The life of ancient Peruvian settlers as revealed by archaeological excavations

Peruvian excavation
with Lawrence Owens, Birbeck College, University of London

Chris - This week we're exploring the science of archeology, first up Lawrence Owens from the University of London; you've been to Peru and looked at ancient civilisations but how old are the people that you've been trying to understand?

Lawrence - The ones I'm working on are about two and a half thousand to one thousand years old, but they get much older now of course.

Chris - How do they fit into our understanding of how mankind covered the earth and migrated to various places and then took up residence in these various countries?

Lawrence - Well of course the big question is migration from Asia because South American population came across from Asia originally and we're not quite sure when. So these kinds of projects are addressing human variation to see how much variation there is and therefore how long they've been there.

Chris - So looking at their genetic ancestry to see if you can understand who went where when?

Lawrence - Basically yes, first you find out what they were and when you've found out what they were, you need to find out who they were and a bit more about them.

Chris - So these people that lived in Peru, you've already said "Asia" so how would they have got there?

Lawrence - They would've come across the straits during the last Ice Age we think, but of course its much more complex than we originally believed - naturally, as everything is in science - so actually various migrations; there was one much earlier and one much later and so we're talking maybe 15,000 years ago. Someone is arguing that there's a site there from 30,000 years ago, so we're not really quite sure yet but we'll get there in the end.

Chris - So these individuals decided to lock up their dead in sort of time capsules for us to discover today. They mummified them; why were they doing that?

Lawrence - There's various beliefs, the oldest mummies in the world are in fact from Chile and they used to carry them around with them as they're family members and they didn't want to leave them behind. They used to do all kinds of weird things; de-flesh them, tie them together with mud and strips of cloth, then dress them in their own clothes and a lovely mask painted red or white or black, and tow it around for a thousand years or so.

Chris - So these individuals obviously weren't rooted to the spot, they weren't living in settlement so that's why they wanted that mobile mummy if you like?

Lawrence - That's right - a mummy for all seasons! Yes and so they were carrying them around with them for a very long time. But of course these were fisher folk; they're living on the coast in Chile. Later on, maybe two or three thousand B.C. People started settling down and that's when the really flamboyant architecture and so forth linked to mummies, started to appear.

Chris - So what did they actually do in terms of preserving them, how did they in Peru? We've asked about Egyptian mummies, but how did Peruvian mummies end up getting preserved, what did they do?

Lawrence - Often, accidentally they used to bury them in hot sand and that was all it really took. In some cases, the body has been modified; its has been partly de-fleshed or the innards have been taken out or things like that. They never got to the same level of sophistication, if you like, as the Egyptians did with draining the brain out of the nose and all the other disgusting things they used to do.

Helen - So do we think this was a deliberate thing or did they just bury them in the sand like we bury people near where we live today - was it accidental or did they really try to preserve the bodies for a reason?

Lawrence - I find the thing is in both Egypt and Peru as far as you can make out, mummification appears to have happened originally by accident and people then capitalised on that and went on further. So yes, originally it was partly accidental but as time went by and particularly towards the Inca Empire they really made efforts to go the full hog.

Chris - How well preserved are they?

Lawrence - Some of them are phenomenally well-preserved. I mean, the Ice Maiden for example from the top of the Andes is absolutely stunning - she looks as though she could get up and walk away and she's 800 years old or so. Some of them are a bit dicey to be honest, some of the ones from my site are terrible but they're still very informative and so you can find out a great deal about them.

Chris - Can you get DNA from them?

Lawrence - You can.

Chris - Is it good quality DNA?

Lawrence - So far there seem to be good signs, there is no contamination and so forth and so it looks as though we could have a very promising data set from there.

Chris - And does it give you any clues as to the kinds of things they ate, died from, that kind of thing?

Lawrence - Well the DNA - we're normally looking at it for variation purposes, just to see where they came form and what was going on. But things like what they died from are more my area, rather than doing all the genes and all the complex stuff I like to rely on the bodies themselves. I'm looking at their teeth, their bones and their stature and everything else about them to find out what they were all about.

Chris - So what kind of clues can you get from bones and teeth as to what happened to people?

Lawrence - Oooh, how long do you have? Loads of things. Basically you can find out everything about somebody you would find out from talking to somebody apart from their name. You could find out everything about them and also things they wouldn't want you to know and so you're going on a blind date almost and asking all these random searching questions. You can also find out things like how much they actually weigh, how old they actually are and things like that which you could really necessarily ask on a blind date and so its quite intriguing.

Helen - Are you getting a good cross section of the population in these mummies? Or is it perhaps just the elite classes which were getting mummified or are you really getting an idea of what everyone was up to? Is it that everyone was put in the ground in this way?

Lawrence - Well the poshest burials if you like are in these nice and very showy tombs and so we naturally know they're from a certain scree of social group. In my site there is 80,000 burials and people came from all over South America to be buried there. Its as important to pre-Hispanic groups as say Mecca is to Muslims today or Jerusalem to Christians. Therefore we have virtually all parts of society, all of whom wanted to come and be buried or to consult the oracle at this site.

Chris - So looking at the bones and things, what sorts of diseases did people have then and did they die from things different to what we would expect people who were living there to die from today - if you look at modern, contemporary populations there?

Lawrence - Yes, of course in the olden days you have to bear in mind that most causes of death you cant really ascertain. The fever that could knock you on the head in a couple of days wouldn't really happen anymore. Also of course you have to bear in mind that diseases would suddenly arrive, say with the explorers from Europe, and that wiped out millions maybe up to nine million people in total.

Chris - So when we went to South America what did we give these people?

Lawrence - The common cold would be enough, 'flu, in many cases they died in huge numbers with sores.

Chris - Measles?

Lawrence - Measles, anything at all like that.

Chris - Smallpox presumably?

Lawrence - Smallpox as well, but the thing is these usually leave little sign on the bone unless you do a genetic test. In the pre-Hispanic period they died from things like syphilis which they did have there before we got there, so not all to blame. Tuberculosis and of course lots of inter-personal violent things like Leishmaniasis which is something worth avoiding.

Chris - Parasite.

Lawrence - Yes, its a nasty parasite indeed. All kinds of afflictions.

Chris - How did the bones tell you that?

Lawrence - In the Leishmaniasis we actually do genetics on it and you can actually isolate it but you can also look at certain morphology and pathology of the face and it rots away the entire middle of the mouth.

Chris - What about syphilis, doesn't that destroy the nose?

Lawrence - Syphilis can destroy various bits of you. There's four diseases in syphilis and so various levels of severity. It starts of with a nasty looking acne on the skull if you can imagine that. It goes all the way through to venereal syphilis which takes away most of your face and leaves your face an entire mess.

Helen - Sounds quite disgusting. I've got an email here from Louise Brownley who asks; is it true you've come across cancerous skulls which shows that historically humans have lived with diseases that we might today not imagine existing with, if so does it really tell us anything about medicine and palliative care that happened at that time.

Lawrence - Yes of course and if you zip back far enough, Neanderthals nearly 60,000 years ago they were taking care of each other and people were living to a ripe old age, in their fifties and sixties a very long time ago indeed. We're designed to live about 30 years and so obviously they were being taken care of with a withered arm and a withered leg. When it comes to Cancer for instance, these things turn up and it reflects the kind of lifestyles they were having and so cancer only appears in certain built-up groups living in a crowded area. There is indication that they had surgery of some sort like trepanation for example - boring holes in your skull - and the champion trepanation chap had 16 operations and survived all of them.

Helen - My goodness! That's incredible!

Chris - Do we have any clues as to why they did that? Did they do it because they happened to believe that there was something evil going on inside this person and therefore accidentally they discovered and stumbled upon drilling holes in people's heads to let the pressure out when they thought they were letting out something different. Or did they genuinely understand the medical basis for drilling holes in people's heads?

Lawrence - There are cases of hydrocephalus for example, so people have water on the brain and then people had drilled holes in the vague hope that it might make their heads a normal size and shape and of course it didn't work. But most cases its rather hard to figure out actually, but trepanation happened in Africa up until the '60s and '70s. There's actually a famous case of a chap called "hat on hat off" who had no skull left above his eyes at all. His entire skull was missing and his brain was pulsing under the skin, they'd actually taken nearly of his over 20 years of operation and he said the cause was headaches that's why he'd had it.

Chris - He did afterwards that's for sure!

Lawrence - I would've thought so.

Chris - John in Norwich would like to know exactly how you work with the mummy, they must be very fragile, he speculates.

Lawrence - They're very fragile, so it really depends upon the preservation. Some of them are really robust and I mean relatively, I mean there's a very good one right here in Cambridge for example. Generally what you do is you have to lay them out and you use endoscopy or radiography to examine what's inside them. Then you do a very minute study of everything that is exposed, look at it under UV light to try and work out tattoos for example. I've found tattooed individuals at my site. Then you go through, if things are showing like teeth and bone you can score morphological characteristics and the pathology , look at their teeth and work out what they ate. Then you can look at - if you're lucky - to work out what they died from take tissues samples for DNA analysis. Its quite comprehensive.

Chris - So given all this analysis and your latest set of excavations in Peru, how has this changed your understanding of who these people were, what they were doing, how they got there and where they went?

Lawrence - That's a big question!

Chris - Its four actually but you don't have to answer them all at once.

Lawrence - I'll do my very best. The thing about proving in archeology is that lots of it is to do with the archaeological materials like temples and buildings, pottery and gold and silver and what have you. So in this case we're looking at migrations of people from around the place, from the Amazon, from the Andes, even from the Caribbean coming to this site. Looking at the kind of things that affected them and so they're dying in their thirties, they were about four foot two believe it or not up to about five foot two, five foot three and so they're really and so they're really quite short.

Chris - Just poor diet did that?

Lawrence - Maybe partly, also genetically speaking people in Peru are generally short. I mean I stick out like a sore thumb there because I'm six foot seven so I have a hell of a time trying to get clothes for instance. We're using isotopes now so we can work out that people are coming for thousands of miles, all over South America just to visit this site. Its quite impressive in that way.

Helen - We sort of touched on some of the maybe odd sides of society and we've got an email here from Sam who says "Is it true that children were often buried alive? And if so what can we learn about such behaviour?" Is that true?

Lawrence - I'm afraid that's true, yes indeed. It had some fairly humble beginnings, back in 600AD-ish. But the people who really loved to get their kids and do nasty things to them were the Incas and they would take them up and the would believe that - they're called capacocha burials - they would take the most perfect child and it was an honour for the family and the girl (generally a girl). They would dress her in her finery and take her up a mountain, generally give her some bitter elixir to drink, which would naturally contain a poison. Then they would put her in a tomb, she would fall asleep because it would be a drug obviously and they would literally wall her in and leave her there.

Helen - So are they actually killing her with the poison or were they just knocking her out until they walled her in and left her there?

Lawrence - Both actually occurred. Sometimes there was blunt force trauma so they actually got hit, other times they just died from the poison itself.

- Animal Domestication

Keith Dobney studies how animals were domesticated thousands of years ago

Animal Domestication
with Keith Dobney, University of Durham

Chris - Now tell me where does my humble pooch come from?

Keith - That's a very good question and we're not entirely sure because the ancestor of the domestic dog is as we know now by various studies including genetics, is spread across the entire Eurasian continent so it could come from almost anywhere. The most recent genetic results have suggested that it was domesticated probably Europe, in the near East and certainly as far as South East Asia; eastern Asia into China maybe.

Chris - What does it take to domesticate an animal?

Keith - That's even more of a difficult question to answer, its one that archaeologist and zoo archaeologists have been wrestling with for a long, long time. Originally we kind of assumed - as humans do - that we are in control of everything so we decided after thousands and thousands of years of hunting and gathering to go out and domesticate animals because they'd be useful. So we were driving the whole process; going out and capturing them, taming them, selecting them genetically for different kinds of things and making them breed with different individuals so that we could actually get different coat colours. Essentially what we realise now is its a more biological process, which may actually be driven by the animals themselves. The animals are in a kind of mutualistic relationship with humans and they're benefiting hugely from this change in their ecology, habitats and the feeding. So they may have actually been drawn, the wild animals themselves (whether its dogs, or pigs or cattle) may have been drawn to humans and human settlements before we even began to think about taming them and using them for our own economic purposes.

Chris - There was a spin-off for them; if they came and hung around with us they'd get free food and a degree of protection.

Keith - A huge spin-off for them in terms of evolutionary selectivity, they had an enormous advantage over - the ones that came and were tolerating humans nearby and weren't running away quite so fast - had a huge advantage over the same species, the same pigs that were living far away and essentially were wild animals. So they were having access to different food, more food, the presence of humans may have actually kept other kinds of predators away so they had secondary advantages too. If you think about domestic animals today, we take them for granted but they are some of the most successful biological organisms on the planet. They are everywhere, if you think about where sheep are today and where they would've been as wild animals about 10,000 years ago they were restricted to a very small part of the near East and Central Asia - now they are everywhere in the world and there are billions of them.

Chris - When do we think that all this major domestication actually happened? What are the major factors that meant that we could get animals growing on farms and that kind of stuff?

Keith - That's a really good question and again I could write tonnes and tonnes of papers on this and people have. It seems to have happened around about 9,000 years ago. Originally it was thought in one or two places, mainly in the near East, the kind of cradle of our civilisation as we know it today. There is evidence that other kinds of animals were being domesticated round about the same time, and then later throughout the world; the same species appears now although we thought differently in the past, like pigs for example that I'm interested in and work on a lot, have been domesticated in many places around the world maybe around the same time. So certainly from about 9,000 years ago, which when you think about it is an incredibly short period of time considering how long humans themselves have actually been around on the planet, so we've been hunting and gathering for three and a half million years and the last ten thousand years is a tiny blip in terms of change in our economics, changing to farming. The spin-off from farming and the spin-off from domestication have been enormous, look around: there are cities, there is culture, there is civilization. That is all down to this series of events which happened incredibly recently.

Chris - So if we were to look at - you gave the example of pigs Keith - if we look at wild boars, which are the ancient ancestors of the pigs we rear for our Danish bacon today, what would a cow have looked like if you wind the clock back 9,000 years? What would a sheep have looked like nine and a half thousand years ago?

Keith - You mean a wild one?

Chris - Yes.

Keith - The ancestor of all wild cattle, we know now was Bos primigenius, the Aurochs and its now extinct unlike the wild boar and the wolf we still have their present day relations on the planet. So we can use those to study the past ones for things like cattle and dromedary; single humped cattle, we don't have their wild ancestors they've become extinct, so we can only find their skeletons. Bos primigenius, wild cattle were enormous and incredibly dangerous, they were certainly around in Eastern Europe until the 16th Century. We know they were enormous from their bones, we know from other studies that they were ginormous and incredibly dangerous, so one of the questions is why did early people domesticate something so big and so dangerous? It may not have been for economic reasons, there are sites in Turkey for example which have war paintings and temples with these enormous horn cores - the horns of these ancient wild cattle, in what we think are ritual and temple contexts. It may well have been that the early domestication of cattle, these huge wild animals was maybe for ritual or religious purposes and not for economics at all.

Chris - What about the sheep question - do we know where they came from?

Keith - Yeah we do, sheep still exist as ? So we can see wild sheep. Certainly again, genetic studies have shown the ancestors to be Ovis orientalis (scientific name)this is the Asiatic Mouflon and we can still see those in zoos, we can see them in the wild in parts of the Near East in higher parts of the fertile crescent in areas like Zagros mountains in Northern Iran, Armenia, places like that. They're quite rare now and they would've been in the past , same for goats they were more or less restiricted to the same range as the wild sheep. The ancient Bezoar goat with the very, very, large horns; all domestic goats today are derived from that.

Chris - And just very briefly Keith, one final question. People are very interested in bird 'flu at the moment for obvious reasons and where we think we spawned that from was wild birds, in fact, aquatic birds. So when would that put the origin of human 'flu because for humans? Because for humans to get 'flu they must've been very close to wild birds for a significant period of time.

Keith - Wow that's a question and a half! I was interested to listen to Lawrence earlier in terms of diseases that humans get, obviously this whole process of animals becoming closer in relationship to humans in terms of domestication, so we're controlling them, we're herding them, we're keeping them penned, we're handling them more, we in much closer proximity. He mentioned tuberculosis for example and one of the ideas maybe that tuberculosis in humans may actually be such a problem because it derives from animals, certainly diseases that are found in animals, things called zoonosis, like viruses, like tuberculosis, like a whole range of other things maybe originated very, very early and maybe originated and be the result of this close contact. Bird flu, the problem with those kinds of things, we just cannot see the effects on the skeletons; all we're looking at are bones so we can only find the viruses or maybe the genetics or DNA through the actual individuals themselves, so the bones don't tell us this unfortunately.


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