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In Place with Tiffiny Tung

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In central Peru, bioarcheologist Tiffiny Tung and her team examine human remains excavated during an earlier season’s dig. The assistant professor of anthropology is currently studying the Wari culture, a pre-Incan civilization that lived in the Andes about 1,400 years ago.

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For several years, Tung’s summer research base has been the archeology lab at Peru’s National University of Huamanga in Ayacucho.
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These trophy heads (human skulls that were modified after death and displayed or worn) were recovered from the Wari site of Conchopata. Iconographic depictions and strontium isotope tests on bones and teeth helped Tung and colleagues establish that the trophy heads were most likely of Wari enemies, rather than of venerated ancestors.
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Animals were often used as offerings in houses and tombs; the llama and guinea pigs skeletons serve as comparative samples for identifying animal bone fragments found at the dig. (The duck skeleton is part of another archeologist’s research; the lab is shared by a variety of researchers and students.)
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Carlos Mancilla Rojas, one of Tung’s Peruvian colleagues, has partially reconstructed these ceramic urns from pottery sherds found at the Conchopata archeological site.
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Kristina Kitko, BE’08, a Ph.D. student in Vanderbilt’s School of Engineering, molds dental casting material to make casts of cut marks on bone fragments. The casts will be analyzed with a scanning electron microscope at Vanderbilt. From that analysis, they’ll learn whether the marks were made by stone or metal tools, or if they indicate accidental damage caused by non-human agents.
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First-year anthropology graduate student Matthew Velasco measures a bone using an osteometric board. When femora (thigh bones) are measured, bioarcheologists can estimate stature.
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In addition to teaching, research and publishing, Tung also
consults for media such as the Discovery Channel, History
Channel and National Geographic. She was featured in the Discovery Channel’s 2005 series, Mummy Autopsy.
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Peruvian archeologist and graduate student Mirza del Castillo uses a magnifying lens to look for human-induced modifications such as cut marks or drill holes on skull fragments while Emily Sharp, BA’08, records the findings. They also search for evidence of healed fractures or lesions that would indicate disease.
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Tung’s work draws researchers from all over. Tung is on the dissertation committee of Christine Pink, a Ph.D. student at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. Pink is comparing the morphology (shape and form) of human teeth, which are under strong genetic control, to document biological relationships between various Wari-era populations.

photo credit: Carlos Mancilla Rojas

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