When it comes to unraveling the mysteries of ancient civilizations, anthropological research serves as the guiding light illuminating the past. At the forefront of this endeavor, Corina Kellner, a distinguished anthropologist and researcher, sheds light on the enigmatic Nasca and Wari civilizations of Peru. Through an exclusive interview with the Local Science Spotlight series for the Flagstaff Festival of Science, Kellner unveils the intricacies of her interdisciplinary work and its profound impact on our understanding of history.

Kellner’s work emerges at the nexus of anthropology and biology, a multidisciplinary approach that weaves a profound tapestry of insights into ancient civilizations. In the heart of the Nasca and Wari cultures, she delves deep into their response to environmental and climatic shifts. Drawing on over two decades of experience, including extensive fieldwork in the Andes, Kellner seamlessly integrates diverse knowledge domains to provide a holistic view of the past.

As the director of the Anthropology Paleodiet Laboratory at NAU, Kellner’s groundbreaking work hinges on stable isotope analysis, revolutionizing our comprehension of prehistoric populations. This technique transcends the confines of broad-scale analysis, facilitating an in-depth understanding of individual lives, diets, and societal roles. Kellner’s research explores gender dynamics, as evidenced by burial artifacts, and migration patterns, thus reshaping our grasp of ancient societies’ fabric.

Kellner’s academic journey weaves an intricate path from the University of California, Santa Barbara, to her tenure as a National Science Foundation Postdoctoral Fellow. Influenced by luminaries like Cathe Schriber and Phil Walker, her trajectory fueled a commitment to giving voice to the past. Fascinated by the Peruvian Andes, Kellner’s research unravels the rise and impact of social complexity, chronicling the Nasca and Wari civilizations’ transition from nomadic to empire-building societies.

Kellner’s expertise converges on the Nasca region and the epochal transition from the Early Intermediate Period to the Middle Horizon Period. These eras witnessed pivotal environmental and cultural shifts that left indelible imprints on the Nasca people’s health, diet, and way of life. Nestled within a desert landscape fed by mountain rivers, the Nasca people’s response to climate volatility uncovers questions of cooperation and conflict. The creation of underground water filtration galleries (puquios) attests to their ingenious adaptation to arid conditions, while the struggle for arable land ignites debates on societal stratification.

"What's happening today in current society is kind of a blueprint of what we've done in the past," Kellner explains.

Kellner’s extensive fieldwork, involving the collection of soil and water samples for isotopic mapping, unveils profound insights. Strontium and oxygen values offer glimpses into geological and environmental influences shaping human populations. These interconnected values hint at individual identities, migration routes, and even dietary preferences. By harnessing these isotopic signatures, Kellner paints a vivid picture of the lives and experiences of ancient civilizations.

Kellner’s contributions ripple beyond academia, extending their embrace to the broader community. The Nasca and Wari civilizations, though shrouded in the past, impart lessons that resonate with modern society. As precursors to the Inca Empire, the Wari established road systems and governmental frameworks that echo through time. Kellner’s research forms a bridge between history and contemporary challenges, offering insights into resource distribution, governance, and the art of adapting to changing circumstances.

Peering into the horizon, Kellner’s future projects expand the frontiers of knowledge. Collaborating with students, she probes the domestication of animal husbandry in the Nasca region, unveiling insights into the treatment of animals during times of upheaval. Her endeavors span the study of animals within human societies across the Andes, delving deeper into the symbiotic relationships between humans and animals. Recent excavations, like the Huaca del Noro site, hint at nascent connections between the Nasca and Wari, inviting us to unearth new narratives.

On a personal note, Kellner’s journey into anthropology and biology was ignited by the curiosity for interdisciplinary exploration. Her advice to budding researchers reverberates with her own path: embrace diverse disciplines encompassing biology, anthropology, chemistry, and paleontology. Kellner’s trajectory also intersects with medical anthropology, exemplifying a pursuit of a deeper understanding of current populations’ health and well-being.

Kellner holds, "Be open to learning all kinds of things."

Corina Kellner’s illuminating story is a testament to the indomitable spirit of inquiry that guides anthropologists through time’s labyrinth. With every revelation, she unearths the footprints of the past and paints vivid portraits of ancient civilizations. In her quest for inclusivity and equity, Kellner paves the way for a harmonious synthesis of diverse perspectives in the realm of science. As she unearths the past, she, in turn, shapes a future where the mosaic of human experience shines brightly, ensuring that no facet of our history remains obscured.

Interview and article by Ashley Alonso