Tiffiny Tung uses forensic techniques to gain new insights
into how ancient people lived and died
By Melanie Catania
Published: February 17, 2005
Television star ...archaeologist ...world traveler ...university professor:
Meet Tiffiny Tung. When she is not in the classroom in Nashville, the assistant professor of anthropology at Vanderbilt University can likely be found in the mountains of Peru or jetting around the globe with the Discovery Channel to discover how ancient people lived and how they died.
Unlike popular portrayals of archaeological work, bioarchaeologists like Tung make discoveries in the laboratory as well as at the dig site. They employ an impressive battery of scientific techniques—DNA analysis, CAT scans, X-rays, radiocarbon dating, chemical analysis of ancient embalming fluids and strontium isotope testing—to build a detailed portrait of a person's life from his or her preserved remains. They then compile the data from a number of individual cases to assemble a picture of the larger population of which the individuals were a part.
"I read the bones, and the bones tell me a story of the individual and the community in which he or she lived,” she says.
Tung's research focuses on the Wari, a warlike society that built a large empire in the Peruvian Andes from AD 550 to 1000. It was the largest polity in the Peruvian highlands before the development of the Inca Empire. Some scholars argue that Inca politics and economics were based on the earlier traditions of Wari society. As it expanded from its capital city at Wari—estimated to have had a population of 40,000 at its peak—the empire established large administrative centers in ethnically distinct areas throughout the Peruvian highlands.
Tung first started working in southern Peru in 1994 while an undergraduate at the University of California, Santa Barbara. She conducted a brief archaeological survey in the region, and documented several ancient cemeteries in the Andes.
"Unfortunately, a lot of the sites had been looted,” she says. "I was horrified to see this as an undergraduate. It became my goal to gather as much data as possible to recover information about these pre-Hispanic populations and to protect these sites.”
One discovery at the site of Beringa in southern Peru was the mummy of a young man, wrapped in a beautiful and relatively intact feather poncho and headdress. The mummy was seated in a flexed position and wrapped in textiles, surrounded by ceramic vessels, textile bags containing peanuts and coca leaves and a variety of weapons, including a mace and a sling for throwing stones.
"It was incredible to find something so intact,” Tung says.
But the discovery was just beginning. When Tung brought the mummy back to the lab, she noticed that the textile was stained with what appeared to be blood.
"I had never seen anything like it, and I was immediately suspicious,” she says. She continued analysis of the mummified individual, who appeared to be between 17 and 19 years old at the time of death, and found that the stain was near to what appeared to be a stab wound. She sent a sample to scientists in Italy who can detect ancient blood proteins, and the tests came back positive for human blood.
"Judging from the wound and test results, it looked like he was stabbed in the thorax, which bled profusely onto his textile garments. He was then given an honorable burial by his community members,” she says. "So from this mummy, we were able to learn about his last moment of life, and also his larger role in the community.”
Tung's broader anthropological interests include investigating the health impact of imperial conquest on subject populations. After working extensively at a site in the core of the Wari empire in the central highland Andes, Tung became interested in settlements on the periphery of the capital and what these ancient communities could reveal about the culture and lives of those in the suburbs, so to speak, and about the Wari's influence in distant regions.
"We can see changes in ceramics, architecture and customs among groups that were conquered,” she says. "I wondered what it was like for populations on the edges of an empire. We found sites with Wari ceramics and textiles 300 miles from the capital. I assembled a team and worked with the Peruvian government to get the necessary permits to start excavating cultural material and human skeletons.”
Excavation teams like the one Tung assembled generally include undergraduates, graduate students, professional archaeologists and local community members, with the professor directing the study. After artifacts and bodies are excavated, they are taken back to the laboratory for detailed analyses. All bones are inventoried and examined for lesions, fractures and other clues to how that person lived and died. The investigators also take samples from organic objects around the body for radiocarbon dating. Depending on the research questions, they sometimes take dental and bone samples for strontium isotope tests. Those analyses can be used to estimate where a person might have lived in childhood and evaluate if they were locals or immigrants in the region where they were eventually buried.
Tung was particularly interested in how the Wari empire obtained and processed human "trophy heads”—heads that have been removed from their bodies, dramatically modified and displayed in a ritualistic manner.
"We wanted to know if the trophy heads represented local venerated ancestors or foreign enemies,” Tung says. "If they were foreign, they were probably consuming different foods, which will lead to a strontium isotope signature distinct from the local area.”
Tung and her colleague, Kelly Knudson of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, established the strontium isotope signature for the core of the empire by consulting previous geological studies and testing local animals found there today. By comparing this local signature to that of the trophy heads, they were able to determine that some of the trophy heads likely came from foreign victims. In addition, the artwork on the ceramics found with the heads displayed warriors carrying trophy heads. Both pieces of evidence led Tung and her colleague to suggest that these trophy heads were taken from enemies of the Wari empire.
Tung's work and reputation drew the interest of the Discovery Channel when they were putting together a team of bioarchaeologists and forensic anthropologists to study mummies around the globe for their new series, Mummy Autopsy.
Over the course of filming, she traveled with her fellow Mummy Autopsy colleagues to seven countries. The cases they examined included a male and female mummy from southern Peru that may have been victims of the war between Peru and Chile in the early 1880s, a skeleton from Wyoming's Wild West days and a Romano-British family that may have died a violent death at the hands of invading Anglo-Saxons.
"One of my goals is to bring anthropology and archaeology to the public, which is one of the reasons why I agreed to do the show,” she says. "I also see the program as an opportunity to conduct a variety of investigations, ranging from identifying violent deaths during pre-Hispanic and colonial times in the Americas, to reconstructing the lives of Macedonian soldiers in northern Greece and recreating Romano-British lifeways after the fall of the Roman empire. All of these cases feed into my broader anthropological interests, complementing both my research and teaching.”
See Tung and her colleagues in action on the Discovery Channel on Mummy Autopsy, each Tuesday beginning Feb. 8 and running through April 2005 at 8 p.m. and 11 p.m. ET.