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Mummies’ last meal revealed: Braids on 2,000-year-old skeletons in Peru show a diet of fish, corn and beans

Hair on 2,000-year-old mummies has helped reveal what Paracas people in Peru ate in the weeks before their death.

A team of archaeologists used the remarkably well-preserved strands to study the diets of 14 individuals unearthed at the Paracas Necropolis of Wari Kayan. 

During the last months of their lives, they appear to have eaten primarily fish and plants, such as corn and beans.

Hair on 2,000-year-old mummies has helped reveal what ancient people in Peru ate in the weeks before their death. During the last months of their lives, the Paracas individuals appear to have eaten primarily marine products and plants, such as maize and beans

Professor Kelly Knudson at Arizona State University made the discovery after focusing on carbon and nitrogen isotope analysis of keratin in the hair.

Animals that are high on the food chain tend to have high nitrogen isotope values, according to a report in Live Science.

Nitrogen isotope values in seawater and sea plants tend to be greater than those on land.

The scientists also looked at the type and number of carbon isotopes. 

Most plants, such as legumes and fruits, make C3, while a corn produces C4.

The numbers indicate different ways plants photosynthesise energy from the sun. 

The research conclude the mummies ate a mixed diet of both C3 and C4 plants.

Archaeologists used the ancient strands of hair to study the diets of 14 individuals unearthed at the Paracas Necropolis of Wari Kayan. Paracas comes from the Quechua word para-ako meaning ¿sand falling like rain

Archaeologists used the ancient strands of hair to study the diets of 14 individuals unearthed at the Paracas Necropolis of Wari Kayan. Paracas comes from the Quechua word para-ako meaning ‘sand falling like rain

‘By using small samples of hair from these mummies, we can learn what they ate in the months and weeks before they died, which is a very intimate look at the past,’ said Professor Knudson.

Human hair grows slowly and around 0.4 inches (1cm) represents four weeks of a person’s life, the researchers claim. 

The team said their diet not only provides insight into health, but also indicates where people lived and travelled, as well as offer clues about their daily lives.

They were also either geographically stable or, if they travelled between the inland highlands and coastal regions, continued to consume fish.

‘What is exciting to me about this research is that we are using new scientific techniques to learn more about mummies that were excavated almost 100 years ago,’ said Professor Knudson.

‘It is a great application of new science to older museum collections.’

The Paracas culture was an Andean society that existed between approximately 800 BCE and 100 BCE.

The Paracas culture was an Andean society that existed between approximately 800 BCE and 100 BCE.They had an in-depth knowledge of irrigation and water management and made stunning contributions in the textile arts. Pictured is an example of one of the textile pieces found alongside the mummies

The Paracas culture was an Andean society that existed between approximately 800 BCE and 100 BCE.They had an in-depth knowledge of irrigation and water management and made stunning contributions in the textile arts. Pictured is an example of one of the textile pieces found alongside the mummies

Paracas comes from the Quechua word para-ako meaning ‘sand falling like rain’. 

They had an in-depth knowledge of irrigation and water management and made stunning contributions in the textile arts.

When the Paracas Necropolis was first discovered in 1927 by Peruvian archaeologist Julio Tello, each mummy was bound in a seated position; found with burial items, like baskets or weapons; and wrapped in a cone-shaped bundle of textiles, including finely embroidered garments.

Since the sampled individuals were mostly male, Professor Knudson suggests that future research may involve more females and youths.

The researchers also plan to further examine artefacts and mortuary evidence to build context for data on the Paracas people’s diet.