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The Skeletons of Olmos: Uncovering a Mystery of Ancient Peru

Haagen Klaus studies the ancient and mysterious remains of societies along Peru’s northern coastal areas. A recent project has seen him racing against the clock in the modern-day town of Olmos to rescue skeletons from a looming construction project and the scathing rains of El Niño.

My three students and I had just arrived in northern Peru. Before us was the skeleton of a man who had literally not seen the light of day for almost 1,000 years. Though I’ve made nearly 20 trips to South America, this was not going to be a routine field research season. We were under a lot of pressure. Time was very short, and the threat of El Niño rains was on the horizon. Above all, we were hoping that the skeleton of this man, along with 80 other people from his community, could speak to an enduring puzzle of one of the great ancient civilizations of South America.

The first skeleton we encountered was that of this man,  today known only as Huaca Juliana Sector 1 Burial 25.
The first skeleton we encountered was that of this man, today known only as Huaca Juliana Sector 1 Burial 25. It was a poignant moment. (Photo by Haagen Klaus)

Since 2001, I’ve been working as an archaeologist on the north coast of Peru—one of the independent centers of native culture, technology, art, religion, and engineering in the Americas. Far from the homeland of the Inca, the desert coast interests me more. It was settled around 12,000 years ago and became home to many chiefdoms, states, and empires. Within the north coast, the large and resource-rich Lambayeque Valley was an epicenter of cultural development. Its archaeological record, well preserved in the desert, provides an incredible window on a unique chapter of history unlike anywhere else in the world or throughout time. It’s like a laboratory to study the unfolding of civilizations that were quite different from our own.

Archaeologists study the past through many kinds of information, such as with the analysis of ceramic vessels, art, or architecture. I am a bioarchaeologist, and ancient people themselves are at the center of my work. Bioarchaeology examines health, growth, disease, physical activity, diet, violence, and genetics from ancient skeletons. Some people might think that looking at skeletons is morbid, but bioarchaeology is about life. Bioarchaeological science has learned to “read” the bones of the dead. In reconstructing their lives, we can directly learn about the culture and worlds in which they lived. In fact, the human skeleton is probably the most information-rich form of evidence in the entire archaeological record.

In 2003, I launched the Lambayeque Valley Biohistory Project. For more than a decade, my colleagues and students from Peru, the United States, Japan, and Canada have been working more than 750 km (470 miles) north of the capital of Lima, and examined more than 2,000 skeletons to reconstruct Andean history. Often, we excavate sites ourselves. Lambayeque has become my second home. Living and working so closely with some of the local people has found them becoming part of my extended family.

One of the most important ancient civilizations was the Sicán, who developed a powerful, flourishing state between 800 and 1350 A.D. Today, the Sicán are known from nearly four decades of pioneering research by Japanese archaeologist (and my mentor) Izumi Shimada (check out www.sican.org). During the Middle Sicán era (A.D. 900-1100), they invented bronze, built colossal pyramids, crafted the finest gold and silver objects ever made in the ancient Americas, and brought probably more than 1.5 million people under their rule. But for every new understanding, it seems as if two new questions emerge.

Many consider the unmistakable  face of the Sicán Diety to be a true icon of the Middle Sicán (or Classic Lambayeque Culture). In fact, it has long been mis-attributed to to the Chimu and Inka cultures. Its face and other design elements are a fusion of other Andean deity concepts and may embody the concept of a life-giving, water-bearing ancestor.
Many consider the unmistakable face of the Sicán Diety as the central icon of the theocratic Middle Sicán (or Classic Lambayeque) culture. In fact, it has long been erroneously attributed to to the later Chimu and Inca cultures. Its face and other design elements are a fusion of other Andean deity concepts and may embody the concept of a life-giving, water-bearing ancestor in the form of a mummy bundle. (Photo by Sam Scholes, and courtesy National Bruning Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology in Lambayeque City, Peru)

I’ve long been captivated by ancient social structures. For example, it’s now clear that Middle Sicán culture was multi-ethnic. Most of the local people appear to be Muchik descendants of the earlier Moche civilization. However, many of the lords and leaders appear ethnically Sicán. Artifacts, burial patterns, folklore, and genetic variation suggests these ultra-powerful elites had biological and cultural ties to the north—to southern Ecuador—and maybe even the enigmatic, matriarchal Tallán culture encountered by Spaniards in the 16th century. Where do the Sicán lords really come from? What was the nature of their connections to foreign lands and other peoples outside of Lambayeque?

The modern town of Olmos is beyond the furthest northern fringes of Lambayeque. I’ve gotten to know Lambayeque very well as my home away from home—but Olmos is so far north that I had never actually visited there before. It was settled on an ancient land route connecting Lambayeque to the Ecuadorian frontier. Olmos is ringed by imposing mountains and known for its searing summer heat.

Inland and almost beyond the furthest reaches of the Lambayeque Valley Complex, the town of Olmos in northern Peru is unique. Ringed by rugged and imposing mountains,  it is an area unique on the north coast of Peru, truly transitional between the coastal plain and the Andes mountains.  It is isolated, but a fascinating town experiencing exponential economic growth. Construction is everywhere.
Inland and almost beyond the furthest reaches of the Lambayeque Valley Complex, the town of Olmos in northern Peru is unique. Ringed by rugged and imposing mountains, it is an area on the north coast of Peru that is transitional between the coastal desert plain and the Andes . It is somewhat isolated, but a fascinating community experiencing exponential economic growth—construction is everywhere. (Photo by Haagen Klaus)

Olmos is also something of an archaeological “black hole.” There are many sites in the area, but no one has ever done archaeological research there. This changed in late 2013. A public works project was laying pipes just outside of town near the remnants of an adobe brick pyramid. Workers stumbled upon an ancient cemetery beneath a road. The work stopped, and an emergency excavation project began. Archaeologists called in from the Lima-based contract archaeology company ASE (Asesoría y Servicios) labored to document, protect, and rescue the finds.

The ever-increasing pace of economic and infrastructure development in Peru accidentally uncovers archaeological remains on a fairly frequent basis. Such discoveries hold immense scientific and cultural value that often can't be fully anticipated. Photo courtesy of ASE and Luis Peña.
The ever-increasing pace of economic and infrastructure development in Peru accidentally uncovers archaeological remains on a fairly frequent basis. Such discoveries hold immense scientific and cultural value that often can’t be fully anticipated. (Photo courtesy ASE and Luis Peña)

Here’s one of the original news pieces (in Spanish) covering the find.

For me, the discovery of burials in Olmos was a bombshell. They were in the right place and time to address questions about Middle Sicán society that I had pondered for a decade. Who indeed was living in the far northern reaches of Middle Sicán territory? Were they the bridge between the lords of Sicán and Ecuador? Could they have been a Tallán colony, or a far-flung enclave of Sicán citizens? Were these people independent, allies, or enemies of the Middle Sicán state?

Under a blistering December sun, archaeologists from ASE uncovered, documented, protected, and recovered nearly 80 burials such as this individual in the Olmos cemetery. Photo courtesy of ASE and Luis Peña.
Under a blistering December sun, archaeologists from ASE uncovered, documented, protected, and recovered nearly 80 burials such as this individual in the Olmos cemetery. (Photo courtesy ASE and Luis Peña)

Time was short. After a millennium in the ground, the skeletons were not in good shape. They had been only partially excavated by ASE, hurriedly removed from the ground in blocks of earth and stored in a temporary field lab. The longer the bones rested in their blocks, the greater the likelihood that they would begin to degrade and fragment even further. It was also unclear as to where the peoples’ remains would be stored after ASE’s lab work was done and if we could study them in the future. The National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) was predicting a possible El Niño event for mid to late summer. El Niño originates in the waters of coastal Peru and hits the hardest there, too. With the 1998 El Niño floods (that wiped entire towns off the face of the earth) still fresh in everyone’s memory, it was unnerving to imagine what could happen to everyone in flood-prone Olmos.

The skeleton of a person buried at Olmos sees light again for the very first time in about 1,000 years. As per ancient customs, many of the deceased were buried with ceramic vessels, perhaps once containing food or libations intended to sustain the dead in the afterworld. Photo courtesy of ASE and Luis Peña.
The skeleton of a pre-teenager buried at Olmos sees light again for the very first time in about 1,000 years. As per ancient customs, many of the deceased were buried with ceramic vessels, perhaps once containing food or libations intended to sustain the dead in the after-world. (Photo courtesy ASE and Luis Peña)

We were invited by ASE to study the skeletons. Financial support for the travel, food, and lodging came from the National Geographic Society and George Mason University (my home institution where I teach in northern Virginia). I scrambled to assemble a research team composed of my best students. Given the short notice, three of them could make the trip. We dashed towards Peru in May before final exams had even started. Three days after landing in Lima, we lifted the first cloth shroud covering the remains of that ancient man from Olmos and began our work.

Archaeological excavation, especially of funerary contexts, is an extremely detailed, time consuming, and important task in reconstructing ancient societies. The living often encode a wide range of symbolic messages about their societies in burial patterns, while the bones in the burial contain equally extraordinary biological information about the very lives the people lived. Photo courtesy of ASE and Luis Peña.
Archaeological excavation, especially of funerary contexts, is a particularly detailed, time consuming, and important task in reconstructing ancient societies. The living often encode a wide range of symbolic messages about their societies in burial patterns, while the bones in the burial contain equally extraordinary biological information about the very lives the people lived. (Photo courtesy ASE and Luis Peña)

Over the next few weeks, we’ll share with you in upcoming blogs the process and methods of bioarchaeology. I’ll talk about our life in the lab and the field, what happened when the rains started to fall, and the genuinely surprising finds that came to light. Stay tuned!

Read More by Haagen Klaus

Comments

  1. Cecilia Esquives
    Lima,Peru
    February 19, 2015, 10:15 pm

    I’m a peruvian and my parents are from Lambayeque, a great land from hospitality people, so I love all of our past,and I’m very happy and proud that professionals as Haagen is interested in the research and to study the ancients from this land, as part of humanity history. Thank you and Congratulations!!

  2. virginia povey
    ertth kent
    February 16, 2015, 4:00 pm

    it’s amazing, I am so looking forward to my dna

  3. Haagen Klaus
    February 9, 2015, 9:20 am

    Hi Danmar! Part III is right here:
    http://voices.nationalgeographic.com/2015/01/16/how-to-read-the-secrets-in-a-skeleton/

    I hope you enjoy! – HDK

  4. Danmar
    California
    February 6, 2015, 4:52 pm

    Dr. Klaus:

    Is there Part III? Did I mis something? Please let me know.
    I’m in the state of Suspense. Thanks

  5. gerry miller
    renton,washington
    January 25, 2015, 8:04 am

    enjoy reading about ancient cultures here in north and south america. Am curious how the peruvians were able to develop bronze metal. I am a descendant of the Aleut people of Alaska,and to my knowledge they had no metal material.They had a successful culture living off the land and sea. Would like to hear from anybody interested.

  6. Rosario Manzello
    Palatine, IL
    January 20, 2015, 7:31 pm

    Keep up the great work and keep us posted of future developments. I will love to read more about your amazing findings.

  7. Hafsa
    Pakistan
    January 15, 2015, 2:45 am

    Thanks… I’m really looking forward to know about their culture and religious-ethnic beliefs and the social framework

  8. Michael Coppage
    Chimbote, Peru
    November 28, 2014, 4:56 pm

    Please don’t leave us hanging…Please post your surprising findings.