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Mummy hair reveals ancient Peruvians enjoyed seafood and beer

The hair of some natural mummies buried about 2,000 years ago in southern Peru appears to have been nicely coiffed prior to burial, with decorated textiles holding it in place.

Archaeologists have used scientific methods to test the hair of these people’s remains to see what they ate in the weeks and months before their death.

The textiles holding the mummies’ hair and other textiles from Paracas have been studied a lot, but analysis of the isotopes in the hair to determine diet is new. Beautiful textiles from these people are in museums around the world.

The people of Paracas in Peru 2,000 years ago created great textiles, including this mummy bundle mask. (Photo by Daderot/ Wikimedia Commons )

It appears the people ate corn, seafood and beans and drank corn beer, according to an article in Live Science . Kelly Knudson, an associate professor of anthropology at the Center for Bioarchaeological Research at Arizona State University, is the lead researcher on the study. She told Live Science they can tell from hair what people were eating because “we are what we eat.”

What they were eating also tells something about their daily activities—in this case possibly brewing beer, farming beans and corn, and fishing and/or gathering marine animals and plants.

In 1925 Julio Tello, a Peruvian archaeologist, discovered the mummies in two burial grounds in southern Peru that came be known as the Paracas Necropolis of Wari Kayan. Archaeologists from around the world have examined the textiles around the decedents’ heads. The cloths are dyed and made of cotton, wool and plants. The dry climate mummified the bodies and preserved textiles holding the hair in place.

Mummy at Ica Museum, Peru, in the same region as Pacara (Photo by Namiac/ Wikimedia Commons )

“The textiles have been sent to museums all over the world. But we don’t actually know much about the people themselves,” Live Science quoted Knudson as saying.

The archaeologists took hair samples from 14 mummies. They also got samples from two artifacts made of human hair from museums in the United States and Peru.

Knudson and team tested the mummies’ hair by analyzing forms of the elements carbon and nitrogen, which helped determine what foods they were eating. Human hair grows about four-tenths of an inch (1 cm) per month, which is quite slow. This gave the scientists a long time frame to examine the diet.

Hair consists of about 14 percent nitrogen and 45 percent carbon by weight. By testing for different isotopes or forms of these elements, they could see what types of food the people ate.

The tests showed a very high level of nitrogen isotopes in the ancient people, which means they probably ate a lot of seafood, either plants or animals. Sea organisms have higher nitrogen levels than land organisms. Organisms high on the food chain also have higher nitrogen isotope levels.

As for carbon, legumes and fruits make the carbon 3 isotope. A smaller number of plants, including corn, make carbon 4. The people whose remains were examined ate a combination of C3 and C4 plants. Corn was an important part of their diet, and it was also a food used in rituals, Knudson said.

The people also made corn beer. Knudson plans to work with other archaeologists to examine artifacts buried with the mummies and also do more testing of mummy hair to see which people were drinking it. Mugs found with the bodies may have been used to drink beer, and if so there may be chemical residue of beer in them.

Recent research has determined some people of the Paracas culture may have spent part of the time away from the coast in the Andes Mountains, Emily Webb, an archaeological scientist of organic geochemistry at the University of Bristol in the United Kingdom, told Live Science. She was not involved in the Knudson study.

“Researchers wondered whether these individuals traveled back and forth from the coast to the highlands, Webb said. But since the mummies’ hair chemistries didn’t differ that much over time, it’s possible they either didn’t travel much, or if they did, they brought food from the coast with them to the highlands, the researchers said,” Live Science reported.

Other studies have shown that ancient people living in the Andean highlands may have consumed clay as a part of their diet. The tradition has been passed on to some modern day Peruvians as well.

The type of clay that has been eaten is known as chaco in Quechua or pasa in Aymara and is normally rich in minerals called smectites. Scientists believe that ancient clay eating in the Peruvian highlands was meant to protect against toxins such as those found in potatoes.

Knudson et. al.’s article was published in the Journal of Archaeological Science .