Cliffside Burial Mystery Continues Unraveling Through Laboratory Work

Ongoing work to unravel the secrets surrounding Peruvian cliffside burials is the focus of a recent feature in Archaeology Magazine.

It’s been five years since Associate Professor J. Marla Toyne, Ph.D. returned to the Chachapoyas region in the Andes Mountains, but it hasn’t slowed down her investigation into why the ancient Chachapoya people created the precarious cliff tombs. While the view is not as spectacular nor the work as perilous, the Laboratory for Bioarchaeological Sciences at UCF is still producing fascinating results.

“There are still more questions than answers,” said Toyne, who specializes in studying human remains as a bioarchaeologist. “But we’re slowly getting better a picture of who these people are and why they are buried on the cliffs.”

Toyne’s work skips the traditional archaeological “horizontal dig” and replaces it with a fresh set of challenges unique to working suspended more than 100 feet in the air: working in a three-dimensional space; limited movement; and the threat of falling rocks. The payoff is uncovering the ceremonial burial habits of a pre-Incan society and better understanding their health and diet using skeletal remains. For instance, a partially mummified individual supplied enough DNA to show he lived with a debilitating bone cancer and was also infected with tuberculosis. Analysis of teeth are also yielding insights into everyday food habits for the Chachapoya.

All told, Toyne and her team identified more than 120 human-made structures, including open chamber tombs and interconnecting pathways on thin ledges, but the exact reason why they exist remains a mystery.

A return trip scheduled for 2020 might have provided answers, but the pandemic sidelined those plans. Toyne is working in the interim on launching a comprehensive website to serve as both catalogue and resource for other archaeologists.

“There will always be plenty of work to keep us occupied. I’m excited to see where we go from here,” Toyne said.



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