Normally when people I meet ask what I do for a living I say that I’m an archaeologist, a profession with which most everyone is familiar. But while this is true, my interests are not in the material culture of the past—stone tools, ceramics, architecture—but in the study of the skeletal remains of ancient people. My academic training is in human osteology, with specializations in paleopathology (the study of ancient disease), bioarchaeology (the application of biological anthropology to archaeological research questions), and forensic anthropology (the recovery and examination of human remains in modern medicolegal contexts).
Since coming to Tulane in 1994, I have taught courses in human osteology, paleopathology, forensic anthropology, mummy studies, and the bioarchaeology of human sacrifice, a new research interest of mine these days. I am pleased to see a real interest in these courses among undergraduate and graduate students here at Tulane. Anthropology is a diverse and dynamic field, and is relevant to exploring issues of race, gender, diversity, and inclusion. Both the past history and present dynamics of human populations are topics that anthropologists are in a unique position to explore given their long tradition of studying cultural diversity worldwide. In my own case, although I devote most of my research to prehistoric societies, my forensic work and teaching involves modern issues of medicolegal and human rights investigations. Three of my Ph.D. students have gone on to careers in forensic anthropology and are currently working on the identification of missing persons in Mexico and investigations of human rights violations for the International Committee of the Red Cross.
Since childhood I have had a strong interest in bones and fossils. In my undergraduate and graduate student years I participated in archaeological excavations in Virginia, California, Illinois, Italy, and Costa Rica. Then, in 1983, I was introduced to Peru. One of my archaeology professors at UCLA was developing a five-year excavation project at a large ceremonial center on the north coast of Peru and was looking for a biological anthropologist. That was more than 35 years ago, and I’ve been returning to Peru every year since. I would have been in Peru this past summer with two graduate students if it were not for the coronavirus pandemic, which has made fieldwork impossible for now. Like many of my colleagues I had to make other plans for the summer, from organizing field and lab notes to working on research grants and articles for publication. I am not about to give up on Peru, however, and am working now on the logistics of returning to fieldwork there in the summer of 2021.
. . . my heart remains in Peru. It is a beautiful country with impressive biological diversity and exceptionally rich archaeological sites.John Verano
Colleagues and friends sometimes ask me “Why only work in Peru? Why not in Mexico or other countries?” While I have many colleagues in Mexico and South America and am happy to collaborate with them on conferences and writing projects, my heart remains in Peru. It is a beautiful country with impressive biological diversity and exceptionally rich archaeological sites. And not just Machu Picchu, where I have studied the skeletal remains recovered by Hiram Bingham; but at many important but less widely known ceremonial centers on the north coast, where I have spent most of my professional career. Although I pass through several large cities on my way to the north coast each year, I tend to spend my time in small towns that have hosted me during my archaeological and museum projects. These field projects employ local university students and field workers who have come to know us as responsible citizens and professionals and have developed an appreciation of what we do by working alongside us day after day in the field. I never forget that I am a guest in their country, and that I am fortunate to have the opportunity to do research there.
As a way of showing my appreciation for the welcoming hand Peru has offered me, I have been a Fulbright Lecturer there twice now, and, more recently, a visiting professor for a graduate program in forensic anthropology. These programs involved teaching at several universities and mentoring undergraduate and graduate students, as well as collaborating with professional colleagues through lectures and scientific conferences. I’m frequently asked to give talks at museums and universities throughout the country, and public lectures and interviews for documentaries have become important ways to share my research, to demonstrate my professional commitment to Peru, and to highlight the richness of Peru’s prehistoric past. As a result, I have made many lasting friendships and professional contacts.
Today archaeologists working in all parts of the world are consulting with local communities and descendant groups who have a stake in preserving and presenting their past, including myself. We also adhere to national laws regarding cultural patrimony and its conservation for current and future generations. I love the work I’m doing in Peru—a place that for many years I have considered my second home. And I am pleased to know I can give something back, not only to my Peruvian colleagues and students but also to the general public.