October 24, 2012

PSU alum talks human remains


---- — PLATTSBURGH — When Dr. Haagen Klaus wants to know more about an ancient civilization, he looks at two things: the bones and the teeth of its people. 

“I became absolutely entranced with the type of information and also the depth of information that you read in human bones and read in human teeth if you know how,” the archaeologist said during one of SUNY Plattsburgh’s recent Distinguished Visiting Alumni talks. 

Klaus, who graduated from the college in 2000 with a bachelor’s degree in anthropology and a double minor in archaeology and studio art, returned to the campus recently to speak about his archaeological endeavors, including the Lambayeque Valley History Project in South America. 

Through the project, Klaus has been able to uncover truths about ancient Peruvian civilizations by studying human remains excavated from ancient burial sites. 

Working along with him was a group of students from Utah Valley University, where he now teaches anthropology.


Within human teeth and bones, Klaus noted, are stored details of a population’s demographic variation, diet, lifestyle and geographic origin, which can then be used to infer information about the social hierarchies, genetics, politics and natural histories of ancient societies. 

“I like to say sometimes that if you give me the teeth of the people, I can reconstruct the entire economic history of the civilization,” Klaus said. 

For one phase of the project, he used a technique known as biodistance to mathematically analyze inherited traits present in the teeth of the Moche people, who lived on the north coast of Peru from A.D. 100 to 750.

By measuring those teeth and analyzing their sizes, positions and shapes, he was able to determine that while Moche lords were closely related to those who lived nearest to them, they were not closely related to Moche lords found in other valleys. 

Klaus’s findings debunked the theory that the Moche had one of the first state-level societies, as they were not consistent with the gene-flow patterns typically found in such societal structures. 

“I think this is a signature of mighty powerful chiefdoms, but this is probably not a state-level organization,” he said.


In another phase of the project, Klaus entered ancient tombs and burial sites of the Sicán people, who lived in Peru from A.D. 900 to 1100, and studied the skeletal remains of human-sacrifice victims. 

Though the bones of the victims sometimes revealed that the individuals had suffered violent deaths, Klaus noted that they were buried with extreme reverence and care and had probably been willing participants in the rituals. 

“One of the reasons, I think, that I’m drawn to bioarchaeology is that it is very humanizing,” he said. “You become an advocate, I think, in a way. You’re able to speak for people who no longer have a voice.

“Their history doesn’t exist until the moment that you uncover it and share it.”

Since graduating from SUNY Plattsburgh, Klaus has earned a master’s degree from Southern Illinois University, a doctorate from Ohio State University and a number of awards for his work, including the Utah Valley University Presidential Fellowship for Faculty Scholarship. 

Still, Klaus said, he uses the skills and knowledge he learned from his professors at Plattsburgh State every day.

”We bring this place everywhere and anywhere that we go,” he told students during his presentation. 

”It becomes part of us.”

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