Q&A: A researcher’s journey to unlock the secrets of Machu Picchu

Media Credit: Photo Courtesy of Brenda Bradley

Researchers are still trying to uncover the exact purpose of Machu Picchu, but ancient DNA from a set of remains at the site could provide some answers.

Brenda Bradley, an associate professor of anthropology, is representing GW in the quest to answer the questions raised by Machu Picchu.

Bradley, along with research partners from Yale University and the University of California, Santa Cruz will examine ancient DNA samples from more than 170 sets of remains uncovered at the site in the Andes Mountains. Using analyses of the genes, the team will get to the very core of what it meant to be human in the time of the Inca Empire. The Hatchet spoke with Bradley to find out more about her research and what she hopes to accomplish with the project. Her responses have been edited for length and clarity.

Hatchet: What drew you to Machu Picchu?

Bradley: Luck. I’m a geneticist, not an archaeologist. And to be honest, until recently my knowledge of the site came mostly from the Lonely Planet guide. But a few years ago, I was in the same anthropology program as Richard Burger and Lucy Salazar – Yale archaeologists with expertise in the Inca and Machu Picchu. Through them I learned about the skeletal remains excavated from the site, and I was immediately excited by the prospect of using DNA to understand something about the people who lived and worked there. Before I knew it, I was in Peru, trying to learn what I could about Inca history. I love this multidisciplinary aspect of anthropology, the opportunity to work on diverse projects in and out of the lab.

Hatchet: What is Machu Picchu’s piece in the Incan puzzle?

Bradley: That’s a big part of its mystery and allure. It’s such a remarkable place, and yet it’s not mentioned in any historical documents. An early hypothesis was that the site was a sort of convent occupied mostly by young women. But much of the current archaeological evidence suggests it was a royal estate, an occasional retreat for the Inca rulers. In that case, the people who lived there would have been specialists and retainers coming from many different regions. With the genetic analyses we can identify the sex and ancestral background of the individuals and test these hypotheses.

Hatchet: What is the question that you want answered by these remains?

Bradley:We’ll be able to answer many questions about the site and Inca population dynamics. But personally, I’m most curious about the small-scale relationships among the people of Machu Picchu. Some were buried together, some were buried alone, one woman was buried, it seems, with her dog. I want to know if and how these people were related to each other. Do they represent families? Multiple generations?

Hatchet: What challenges are you looking at with the project?

Bradley: The skeletal remains are hundreds of years old. Working with such ancient DNA is always difficult. But fortunately, we are collaborating with an expert in paleogenomics, Lars Fehren-Schmitz at UCSC, and he has so far had great success in retrieving DNA from the samples. He’s brilliant.

Hatchet: Why do you do what you do? Do you see a higher purpose to the group’s work?

Bradley: Most of the research in my lab focuses on genetics of non-human primates, including wild populations of lemurs and gorillas. But those projects, and the Machu Picchu project, are part of the same big picture: understanding our evolutionary history through the trace evidence in our genomes.

Hatchet: What can we learn from uncovering answers about the past? How does that help current society or even the contemporary individual?

Bradley: The most fundamental questions: “Who am I?” “How and why do I differ from other people?” “From other animals?” These are questions about our short-term population history and our long-term evolutionary history. My projects are small-scale case studies in trying to get some answers. On a more practical note, genetics is a major aspect of modern medicine, and medical genetics is based on human evolutionary and population genetics. There is a reason med schools are requiring course work in evolutionary biology.

Hatchet: What’s a story about all of this that you’d want to tell your grandkids?

Bradley: Oh, no grandkids for me please. But my students are, in a way, my academic contribution to the next generation. And I think they share with me an appreciation for field work. Most of the daily work in my lab focuses on molecules. And genomic technology is advancing rapidly: We can generate a lot of genetic data very quickly. But all those DNA sequences are meaningless without an appreciation of the biological context, the environment in which individuals and populations live and evolve. Most of my students combine lab work and field work – and they’re the ones with the good stories.

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