Digging up the Past

J. Marla Toyne, Ph.D., assistant professor in the University of Central Florida’s Department of Anthropology, uses ancient and modern human and animal tissues to study dietary and migration patterns of the past.

In the Laboratory for Bioarchaeological Sciences, located in the basement of the Math and Sciences Building, Toyne uses samples from archaeological sites from around the world to conduct her investigations.

“From each site or cemetery we select samples that represent the population to look at variation and possible changes over time,” said Toyne. “I currently have samples from Ecuador and the coast and highlands of Peru.”

The information gathered through the samples is used to better understand the evolution of agricultural practices, land use, environmental change and socio-economic status differences among individuals and communities. Toyne is also able to trace the movement of people and diversity within communities.

“Groups were more variable and diverse in the past than we thought,” said Toyne. “And people moved greatly across the landscape for various reasons.”

Toyne discovered that during times of great social change, such as the development of the Inca Empire, people responded to the shift by altering their diet or migrating to new places.

Collaborative research projects are ongoing in the lab under the supervision of the Chair of the Department of Anthropology, Tosha Dupras, Ph.D., and Lecturer in the department, Lana Williams, Ph.D., along with their graduate and undergraduate students.

Most recently, her research on the dietary and mobility patterns of the Chachapoya people in Peru was published in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology.

Studying the diet of ancient societies is telling of how people lived. For instance, some societies valued animal protein, so only certain people were allowed to eat meat or it was saved for special feasting events.

“We can see if everyone living at sites ate the same things or if some people had more privileged access to specific food than others,” said Toyne.

Analyzing a civilization’s diet helps to understand more than just the meals that they ate, it also tells a story of the lifestyle they lived.

“One important difference we’ve seen in the Peruvian samples is between men and women,” said Toyne. “Women were more likely to have moved to the site and often had different diets than the men. This suggests that women migrated to find partners in the past, often traveling great distances and potentially joining new or different ethnic groups to create multi-ethnic communities and new socio-political alliances among regions.”

The research also explores the relationship between diet and health. By testing individuals with different types of skeletal diseases, Toyne can see how their health problems affected their diet and how societies responded.

Toyne’s work is funded in part by the National Geographic Society. The National Geographic Magazine recently featured her work conducted in the highlands of Peru in a video on its Facebook. View video.

Toyne continues to do remarkable research on this matter and values her students’ involvement.

“The students who work in the lab provide extremely valuable help,” said Toyne. “Many come from different disciplines but are always fascinated by anthropology’s way of integrating social questions and hard science methods, and how the past can inform the present.”

Toyne’s current research projects in the laboratory will continue for several years with many graduate theses developing. She expects to travel to Peru in March to collect a new set of samples (similar to her 2016 data collection) from the cliff tombs of La Petaca, Chachapoyas. Toyne, along with some graduate and undergraduate students, will return to Peru in June to develop a new project that examines animal remains, which can ultimately determine how humans interacted with the domesticated animals.

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