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Insects as Silent Witnesses to Prehistoric Warfare: Forensic Archaeoentomology as a Novel Approach to the Study of Conflict

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - WARFLY (Insects as Silent Witnesses to Prehistoric Warfare: Forensic Archaeoentomology as a Novel Approach to the Study of Conflict)

Reporting period: 2016-11-01 to 2018-10-31

WARFLY is a ‘proof of concept’ study that aims to develop and test an innovative archaeological approach to investigate scenes of past violence. Studies in conflict archaeology typically focus on analysing the remains of victims of violence, items of weaponry and armoury, defensive architecture and iconographic representations of war. In order to make sense of the often ambiguous evidence at hand, ethnographic and historical accounts are often heavily relied upon. This project seeks to establish an approach that will allow past violent episodes to be reconstructed from detailed investigations of evidence recovered at scenes of prehistoric conflict. The approach integrates insect subfossils ‒ powerful indicators of living conditions, subsistence practices, site formation processes, seasonality, mortuary practices and death circumstances ‒ with other artefactual, architectural and biological data recovered from conflict sites.

The project focuses on Nunalleq, a pre-contact (16-17th centuries AD) indigenous (Yup’ik) site which was the scene of violence associated with a conflict referred to by Yup’ik oral historians as ‘the Bow and Arrow Wars’. The permafrost-preserved archaeology at the site includes the remains of a large sod structure, which final floor layers are burnt and overlain by charred roof sods strewn with projectile points and shafts. Excavations have also recovered the remains of several of the conflict victims. Multiple samples of fly, beetle, lice and flea subfossils recovered from house floors and from the victim’s remains are the object of high-resolution spatial and diachronic analyses. The results will form the basis for building a series of possible scenarios, which will be scrutinised through examination of other artefactual and biological evidence available at the site.

This project is the first to introduce archaeoentomology – the study of insect remains preserved in archaeological sites – into the realm of conflict archaeology. It will also contribute to the first investigation of the Bow and Arrow Wars from an archaeological perspective.
This project allowed preliminary analyses of subfossil remains of beetles, lice and fleas from occupation layers at Nunalleq to be complemented with the analysis of necrophagous flies – fly species that breed on decaying corpses. Samples both from the floors of sod houses and from human remains at the site were thus analysed. Another important part of the project consisted in the conduction of a trapping experiment in the field in Alaska. In the summer of 2017, fresh meat-baited traps were placed in the vicinity of the Nunalleq archaeological site. This allowed the sampling of the local necrophagous fly and beetle fauna from a region of Alaska that is poorly known in terms of its faunal diversity. These specimens, and the ecological data derived from them, served both as an aid to identify the subfossils preserved in the archaeology and to help interpret their significance in terms of ecological conditions, humans activities and seasonality. The result of the study allowed us to suggest a season for the attack on Nunalleq, while also providing new insights on pre-contact warfare and the treatment of victims’ corpses.

In an attempt to determine whether the entomological evidence could help reconstruct the events and scene of the attack, spatial analyses were undertaken as well. The spatial patterning of human parasites (lice and fleas) and necrophagous flies in the most recent house floors of the site (those contemporary with the attack) was thus compared with that of other types of archaeological data, including human hair, fur, coprolites, lithic points and clothing. The results suggest that the confrontation mainly took place outside the sod house. Perhaps most importantly, those results demonstrated that past conflict episodes – which caused the death of human hosts – can substantially influence insect subfossil assemblages on archaeological sites.
This project, originally designed to be achieved over the period of 24 months, was reduced in length to 14 months due to unforeseen circumstances. The project will however continue over the next few years.

Publication of the main results of the project – including the list of insects recovered from human remains and associated osteological data – is pending, with the manuscript currently under construction. The results of the spatial analyses have been written into a manuscript that is currently under review.

In terms of future research, it is envisaged that the pilot study of insects sampled from around corpses will be substantiated through a more extensive and detailed analysis of the numerous samples that were collected during the 2015 field season.

It is hoped that the continued application of the new approach developed in this project, and the integration of the insect subfossils with other available data, will allow a detailed narrative of the events that preceded, defined and followed the attack on Nunalleq to be reconstructed from material evidence.
Blowfly (fam. Calliphoridae) puparia (larval cases) collected from human remains at Nunalleq
The archaeological site of Nunalleq in SW Alaska