This research examines what happens to people when social institutions fail. It builds on theories of state collapse, which posit that the power void left by a collapsed state leads to social unrest, the demise of social institutions, poor health, and warfare. Recent theoretical frameworks, however, challenge the notion of unmitigated collapse and argue for a more nuanced examination of the afterlife of states and empires. That is, because illness, malnutrition, and trauma are often seen as inevitable in a poor natural environment, other factors are often overlooked. For example, health outcomes are also affected by social relations, trade networks, and human decisions about how to manage the natural environment and equitably (or inequitably) distribute resources. While climate stress can contribute to serious deleterious effects on human health and livelihood, these effects are mediated through historical precedence, political decision-making, social networks, and social norms that may dictate or encourage certain behaviors, all of which can impact community and individual health.

Dr. Tiffiny A. Tung and her international research team of students and professionals will investigate how the prehistoric PeruvianWari state decline and a subsequent period of climate stress affected the health, diet, violence, and migration patterns of populations from the ancient Peruvian Andes. Over 400 human skeletons from three sequential time periods are examined: Terminal Wari (AD 1000-1100); 2) Late Intermediate Period I (LIP, AD 1100-1275); and 3) LIP II (AD 1275-1400). The skeletal remains from each era are examined for trauma and pathological lesions, excellent proxies for documenting levels of violence and community health; changes in social identity are examined through cranial modification; dietary practices are reconstructed through a study of carbon and nitrogen isotope ratios and dental disease; migration patterns are documented through strontium and lead isotope ratios; and estimates of precipitation and climate are reconstructed with oxygen isotope ratios from human and animal dental apatite. The data from each time period are compared to evaluate the distinct effects of state decline and the subsequent period of incipient drought and later severe, persistent drought.

This project gives students from the US and Peru hands-on experience in osteological analysis and archaeological studies, while also fomenting international collaborations and mutual respect. Unidentified human bodies from the Peruvian conflict of the 1980s also means that the PI's bioarchaeological team can coordinate with the local forensic teams in certain human rights/forensic cases, especially as it relates to documenting and interpreting skeletal trauma.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Behavioral and Cognitive Sciences (BCS)
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John E. Yellen
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Vanderbilt University Medical Center
United States
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