Mummies Lure Professor to Chile

Mummies Lure Professor to Chile

By Alexis BlueUniversity Communications
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Jim Watson
Jim Watson

It's a job that might send shivers down many people's spines, but giving dental exams to some of the world's oldest mummies will soon become part of a routine day at the office for one University of Arizona professor.

Jim Watson, assistant professor of anthropology and assistant curator of bioarchaeology at the Arizona State Museum, will travel to Chile next month to study the oral health of the Chinchorro culture, one of the first known populations to mummify its dead.

Watson was named a Fulbright Scholar this semester and will use his Fulbright grant award to travel with his wife, also an archaeologist, and 6-month-old son to Chile, where the family will live for four months. While there, Watson will teach a hands-on laboratory class of archaeology master's students at the Universidad Tarapaca de Arica and study the school museum's collection of thousands of mummies.

Watson, who came to the UA from Indiana University just seven months ago, is particularly interested in studying the teeth of the mummies to learn about the oral health of the Chinchorro people and its relationship to the population's diet, which was rich in fish. He will examine patterns of oral disease, decay, tooth loss and wear.

Watson has done similar research in Northern Mexico, uncovering widespread negative effects of carbohydrate-rich, cavity-causing foods like cacti, agave hearts and mesquite beans on the oral health on some of the earliest inhabitants of the Sonoran Desert. "When it comes to teeth, we are what we eat basically," Watson said.

Early in Watson's career, he became interested in forensic anthropology and earned his bachelor's degree from the University of Tennessee. The school is known for its Anthropological Research Facility, often called the "Body Farm," a fenced-in plot of land where donated dead bodies are left in various stages of decomposition for study.

Eventually, Watson shifted his focus away from forensics and toward the study of more ancient remains.

"I didn't like dealing with, one, the flesh, and two, the depravity of humanity," he said. "I decided flesh is gross and people are mean, so I prefer ancient humans."

The ancient Chinchorro culture that Watson is preparing to study lived in Pacific coastal fishing villages in Northern Chile's Atacama Desert and began mummifying their dead about 9,000 years ago, 3,000 to 4,000 years earlier than the Egyptians, Watson said.

Families would strip loved ones' bodies of their skin, then attach sticks to the remaining skeleton for support, fill in empty cavities with seaweed and wrap the bodies in mud or textiles. They would then carry the deceased family members with them when they moved from place to place, Watson said.

Some mummies' faces were covered with mud masks and, for those, Watson will have to rely on X-rays and CT scans for dental information. With others, Watson will have direct access to the ancient teeth.

Watson earned his bachelor's degree from the University of Tennessee in 1996, his master's degree from Wichita State University in 1999 and his doctorate from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, in 2005.

He is one of approximately 800 U.S. faculty and professionals who will travel abroad during the academic year through the Fulbright Program, sponsored by the United States Department of State Bureau of Education and Cultural Affairs. The program, which operates in 150 countries, has exchanged about 273,500 people, including 102,900 Americans, since its inception in 1946.

This will be Watson's first trip to South America, and he said he hopes to fit in some sightseeing while he's there, including trips to Machu Picchu and Lake Titicaca. He even plans to try his hand at surfing in his exchange hometown of Arica, which he's heard described as a "small, sleepy surfing town."

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