How to study a skeleton: Expert advice from anthropology professor Tiffiny Tung

Tiffiny Tung, associate professor of anthropology, is on familiar terms with the dead. She may not know their names, but she can tell you a surprising amount of information about how they lived—and even, on occasion, how they died. That they drew their last breaths more than 1,000 years ago makes it all the more remarkable.

Tung is an expert in bioarchaeology, the scientific study of human remains from archaeological sites. Her research focuses on the Wari culture, which built an empire in the Andes Mountains of Peru circa A.D. 600–1000 and laid much of the groundwork for the more well-known Inca civilization that followed.

“We’re looking at individuals to understand Wari society as a whole—to answer questions about population health, social class and other broad topics,” says Tung, who works under grants from the Wenner–Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research and Vanderbilt University. “It just so happens that these people are dead and can’t talk to us. So we do the next best thing and analyze their bones.”

Tung is joined in her research by Ph.D. candidate Beth Koontz, MA’12. This summer both Tung and Koontz are in the field, unearthing new clues about life and death in the Wari Empire. The following are just a few insights from their skeletal analyses.


Watch Tiffiny Tung and her students examine Wari skulls in Peru.