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A Desire That Runs Bone Deep

By Dave Shelles

Volume 12, Number 3 | May 2011

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Sitting at a computer during the summer of 2005, Melissa Murphy puzzled over what she saw. Photograph after photograph of skeletons discovered at 57AS03 cemetery in Peru showed the Incas died largely of blunt-force trauma while resisting their Spanish conquerors.

But not this particular skeleton, says Murphy, an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Wyoming.

It was a hole in a skull, not a break or some other abrasion, with what appeared to be entry and exit wounds — like something caused by a firearm. That can't be, Murphy thought. The Spanish were believed to have conquered the new world without such violence. Previous studies indicate evidence of guns didn't make their appearance in the Western Hemisphere until the mid-1500s, when the Spanish first established settlements in North America.

The next day, when she put the fragmentary skull together in a lab, she saw what might be an exit wound through the forehead. This was her sought-after "Eureka!" moment. Then the butterflies started fluttering. "It was incredible. I could not believe it," says Murphy, who was working as a lecturer and lab instructor at Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania at the time of the discovery. "Then I got nervous because you don't know if this is possible. I just redoubled my efforts to get through the collection to see if there were other cases. What we found from that cemetery is really high evidence of perimortem trauma [trauma sustained at the time of death], and a level of lethality you didn't see at any other cemetery. We argue that's the result of the Spanish conquest."

Murphy drew on her knowledge of forensic anthropology and compared the skull with wounds found on Civil War skeletons, as well as with what is known and published from other samples of human skeletal remains, mostly from Europe. The firearm technology possibly used by the Spaniards was similar to that used in the Civil War nearly three centuries later. Both sets of firearms would have used musket balls instead of more modern conical bullets and low-velocity firearms.

As the Incas lived from 1470-1540, this discovery represents two things: the earliest physical evidence of firearms in the Americas, and the first physical evidence of violence associated with the Spanish Conquest of the Inca Empire.

Murphy joined four colleagues from various other universities in the study: Guillermo Cock and Elena Goycochea of Consultores en Patrimonio Cultural in Lima, Peru; John Verano of Tulane University; and Catherine Gaither of Metro State University in Denver. The group published its findings last year in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology.

Amazingly, Murphy did not set out to study the Incas, let alone make an earth-shaking discovery such as this. After graduating from Haverford College in Pennsylvania with a bachelor's degree in anthropology, she turned her focus to bioarchaeology. A term first coined in 1977, it's defined as the study of human skeletal remains concerned with anthropological questions, grounded in the archaeological context. It also uses the rigorous application of the scientific method, so a bioarchaeologist would be involved in a project from the beginning as an investigator.

Initially, Murphy studied human evolution as a doctoral student at the University of Pennsylvania, but described it as "not anthropological enough," so she arrived at bioarchaeology. A professor there who worked on digs in South America told Murphy there were myriad opportunities for research there, and to get in touch with Verano, one of the world's preeminent experts on the bioarchaeology of the Moche people.

"So I contacted him and he said, 'Just come on down.' I had no idea what I was getting into," Murphy says. "I was really nervous. I get down there and the first day we're doing work. He takes me out to this site that's a human sacrificial platform. I couldn't believe it. There were skeletons lying on top of each other in different positions. I never expected when I went that I would get that opportunity. I was looking for projects and it wasn't necessarily the Incas I was most interested in. It really was luck that I fell into it."

Murphy grew up in Syracuse, New York, the daughter of an education professor at Syracuse University. Like most children, a neighbor asked her what she wanted to be when she grew up. Thanks to stacks of science magazines in her home, she already had an idea.

"I've wanted to be an archaeologist since I was a kid," Murphy says. "I once told some grownups that I wanted to be an archaeologist, and they said I was going to get really bored — I'll study ceramics, or I'm going to get really scared because there will be skeletons. But I've always been fascinated by archaeology and I didn't know at the time that the part that would interest me the most would be the skeletons."

At Nottingham High School in Syracuse, she took a class in anthropology, an experience that stayed with her when she did her undergraduate studies at Haverford College near Philadelphia. Though she had many academic interests, she says it wasn't hard to find something to focus on for her major.

"It wasn't until college that my advisor asked me what subjects I liked and I liked most things; I was kind of a neurotic student," she says. "I said, 'I really like anthropology, but I don't know much about it,' so they advised me to take some anthropology classes. It was great. I was in the right program to get exposure to anthropology and biological anthropology."

After earning her bachelor's in 1994, she taught kindergarten for two years and considered other career options before finishing her doctoral studies at Pennsylvania 10 years later. She then took a non-tenured position at Bryn Mawr College. Her desire for a tenure-track position — and one driven by research — led her to UW in September 2008.

Building on her work at Puruchuco-Huaquerones, Murphy has turned her attention to other collections from the Rimac Valley of Peru. She is also participating in bioarchaeological research at Santa Maria Magdalena de Cao Viejo, an early colonial period church complex and town in the Chicama Valley on the north coast of Peru. A book she co-edited, called Enduring Conquests: Rethinking the Archaeology of Resistance to Spanish Colonialism in the Americas, comes out later this spring.

"When the job came up, I was advancing my research, and I was starting to learn more about UW," she says. "I thought it looked really intriguing. Big change, very different, but the things I didn't have at Bryn Mawr, I have here. There's a lot of emphasis on research, and we have some top researchers in this department. Not only that, we have some great teachers. I have the best of all worlds."


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