Study finds significant facial variation in pre-Columbian South America

March 5, 2015 by Matt Shipman, North Carolina State University
Study finds significant facial variation in pre-columbian south america
Photo of an excavation at Pachacamac Inca ruins, Peru. Credit: Héctor de Pereda, via Flickr.

A team of anthropology researchers has found significant differences in facial features between seven different pre-Columbian peoples they evaluated from what is now Peru – disproving a longstanding perception that these groups were physically homogenous. The finding may lead scholars to revisit any hypotheses about human migration patterns that rested on the idea that there was little skeletal variation in pre-Columbian South America.

Skeletal variation is a prominent area of research in New World bioarchaeology, because it can help us understand the origins and migration patterns of various pre-Columbian groups through the Americas.

"However, for a long time, the conventional wisdom was that there was very little variation prior to European contact," says Ann Ross, a forensic anthropologist at NC State University and co-author of a paper describing the new work. "Our work shows that there was actually significant variation." The research team also included anthropologists from the University of Oregon and Tulane University.

The recently published findings may affect a lot of hypotheses regarding New World anthropology. For decades, research on pre-Columbian peoples used one sample of 110 individuals to represent the skull variation – including the facial features – of all South American peoples. But that representative sample consisted solely of individuals from the Yauyos people – a civilization that existed in the central Peruvian highlands.

Ann Ross, in her lab. Credit: NC State University

"Our work shows that the Yauyos had that were very different even from other peoples in the same region," Ross says. "This raises questions about any hypothesis that rests in part on the use of the Yauyos sample as being representative of all South America."

The researchers evaluated facial measurements of 507 skulls from seven different groups that have been clearly defined by archaeological evidence: the Yauyos, Ancon, Cajamarca, Jahuay, Makatampu, Malabrigo and Pacatnamu peoples. These societies existed at various points between A.D. 1 and A.D. 1470.

Ross collected facial measurements of the Ancon, Cajamarca and Makatampu remains. John Verano, an anthropologist at Tulane, collected measurements of the Jahuay, Malabrigo and Pacatnamu remains. For the Yauyos, the researchers used measurements made by W.W. Howells in 1973.

The researchers found that each of these groups displayed distinct facial characteristics.

Kristen Chew in the Ross lab. Credit: NC State University

The researchers also plotted the sites where each group's remains were found. Using this information, they determined that geographical distance was a factor in facial differences between groups.

In other words, the farther apart two groups were, the less they looked alike.

"We've now collected samples from across Latin America – and those we've already published on can be viewed in a publicly available database," Ross says. "Our publications so far have focused on variation in specific regions. Next we want to compare variation across Latin America, to see if we can identify patterns that suggest biological relationships, which could be indicative of ."

A pre-publication version of the paper on the seven Peruvian groups, "Craniofacial plasticity in ancient Peru," was made available online by the Journal of Biological and Clinical Anthropology (Anthropologischer Anzeiger).

Explore further: Face-to-face: Skull study shows variation of pre-Columbian cultures in Mexico

More information: "Craniofacial plasticity in ancient Peru." DOI: . … 15_0458_stone_prepub

Related Stories

Recommended for you


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

4.5 / 5 (2) Mar 05, 2015
I'm no techi but pictures of scientists holding rulers makes me wonder: Don't we have facial recognition/biometrics/scanners (even xray) software and cameras now where they can just take a picture, plug in some data about dates and locations and come up with a database showing a zillion cross-referenced spreadsheets/analytics on everything relative to everything else? I've always wanted to do that with bison skulls. You could do it on every bone and tooth in the body to see trends over time and location. I guess it's like the jet pack: we're there, but not really. ???
not rated yet Mar 05, 2015
P.S. Then you'd do a little time-lapse-like movie of populations.
1 / 5 (2) Mar 05, 2015
Funny- Aliens at Nazca pretty much says the same and they didn't have all of those hi tech gizmos...
5 / 5 (1) Mar 05, 2015
@huckmucus... I kind of have to agree with you a bit there. You would think someplace like NC State University could afford a 3D laser scanner that was hooked up to a computer cad program. They are not all that expensive.

not rated yet Mar 10, 2015
When you're working in the field, such as dealing with mass graves in Guatemala, you can't cart your hi-tech lab gear up steep mountainsides. Low tech gear works just fine.
not rated yet Mar 10, 2015
When you're working in the field, such as dealing with mass graves in Guatemala, you can't cart your hi-tech lab gear up steep mountainsides. Low tech gear works just fine.

Meh. It doesn't work fine if it will all have to be re-entered someday when scientists finally learn to hump their gear in like Marines. Besides, the chick in the referenced photo is in a lab. Further, the biometrics I'm talking about can snap photos of a T from a spec ops camera surreptitiously attached to the operator's Oakleys. ;-)

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.