Fall of the Mitey

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Science  30 Mar 2007:
Vol. 315, Issue 5820, pp. 1768
DOI: 10.1126/science.315.5820.1768b

Within a century after the arrival of Spanish conquistadors in Peru in the 1530s, the population of the Inca empire fell from an estimated 9 million to around 600,000, due largely to introduced diseases, forced resettlement, and exploitation for labor. It is difficult to reconstruct the demographic history of that collapse because the Inca had no written language. Chepstow-Lusty et al. employed a new palaeoenvironmental tool, the abundance of soil-dwelling oribatid mites, to help fill in gaps in the record of population decline. These mites, which are tiny arthropods related to spiders, thrive on a diet rich in animal excrement (in Peru, mostly that of llamas). By measuring the abundance of these creatures' remains in pastures where the animals would have grazed, the authors were able to determine how the abundance of livestock, and by inference the level of human activity, changed in the area around the imperial capital Cuzco from about 800 to 1800 CE. The correspondence of the mite record to the historical accounts of the Spanish invaders bolsters the accuracy of the technique. — HJS

J. Archaeol. Sci. 34, 1178 (2007).

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