My scholarship explores many facets of the intimate engagements that past peoples of the Americas had with the plant world. The majority of my work has taken place in coastal Peru, a narrow strip of desert defined by a bountiful sea, fertile irrigated valleys, and barren pampas. This unique environment is highly conducive to the preservation of organic remains, resulting in the recovery of excellent data pertaining to plant use in the past. My primary, overarching interest is in plants and their role in ancient Andean foodways. I am particularly keen on investigating the manner in which what we eat is tied to a sense of self, using food as a means of "seeing faces" in the distant past.
To address my research questions, I adopt a multi-proxy approach that relies on the integration of multiple lines of evidence. I utilize various digital technologies such as Geographic Information Systems (GIS) and 3D-modeling software to visualize and interpret the spatial patterning of artifacts and ecofacts across archaeological sites.
Household and Home in the Andean Past
What does a Moche house look like? What was daily life like for commoners living in coastal Peru over 1300 years ago?
Since 2007, I have collaborated with Dr. Luis Jaime Castillo of Pontificia Universidad Católica del Perú and the San José de Moro Archaeological Project to study plant use at Moche rituals centers and settlements in the Jequetepeque Valley of Peru.
The Moche (200-800 CE) of the North Coast of Peru were a highly complex and diversified cultural group that shared a common elite material culture. While elite people and contexts have been extensively studied, research into Moche foodways and daily life among different status groups has been far more sporadic.
To address the gap, I predominantly utilize a microhistorical approach in conducting research in household archaeology. Working from the notion that the house, in some senses, reflects the larger ordering of the world, I examine the vestiges of everyday activities that were left behind by Moche commoners in their homes. By undertaking a microscale perspective to the data, I am able to unearth the life histories of the voiceless and often ignored.
The Gastropolitics of Moche Food and Cuisine
How can food be used to study the political relationships between different segments of past societies?
Food, in fact, is well suited for the study of social inequality. As the anthropologist Arjun Appdurai proposed when coining the term "gastropolitics," food has two semiotic functions: "[I]t can either homogenize the actors who transact in it, or it can serve to heterogenize them" (1981: 494). Thus, food is a means of both increasing intimacy or solidarity, or conversely, promoting social distancing.
In my investigations on the cuisine of the Moche people in the Jequetepeque Valley of Peru, I consider the potential gastropolitical role that food may have played in exacerbating preexisting disparities in the Moche social order. My research has not only demonstrated the existence of status-based distinctions in food consumption and access, but also evidence of stress and insecurity in the consumption practices of both the "haves" and the "have-nots" during periods of environmental, political, economic, and social turmoil.
The Domestication and Spread of Chili Peppers in the Americas
Why did people begin experimenting with the cultivation of spicy chili peppers over 10,000 years ago? What led to the domestication and spread of the five domesticated chili pepper species we recognize today?
In conjunction with Dr. Christine Hastorf of the University of California, Berkeley, I developed a morphometric procedure for speciating chili pepper seeds in an effort to track the movement of various cultivars across time and space published in Economic Botany (Chiou and Hastorf 2014). Using this identification method, I analyzed the chili pepper remains from excavations run by Dr. Tom Dillehay of Vanderbilt University at Huaca Prieta, a Preceramic site in coastal Peru (Chiou et al. 2017). Furthermore, I undertook a diachronic study (also published in Economic Botany) of one South American species (C. baccatum) to demonstrate how cultivation and selection over the course of 7,000 years in coastal Peru influenced seed and fruit size (Chiou et al. 2014).
Currently, I am expanding the geographic extent of this project by collaborating with a multi-disciplinary team from the University of California Berkeley and various Mexican institutions including Universidad Veracruzana, Instituto de Ecología (INECOL), and Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia (INAH) to study the abundant varieties of chili peppers in Mexico in the present and in the archaeological past.
The Impact of Forced Resettlement on Native Andean Foodways
How did Spanish Conquest impact native cuisines in coastal Peru?
I am currently collaborating with Dr. Parker Van Valkenburgh of Brown University and Sarah Kennedy of the University of Pittsburgh on a project related to the archaeology of culture contact and colonialism that examines the effects of forced resettlement by the Spanish or reducción on the foodways of native communities at the coastal site of Carrizales in the Zaña Valley of Peru.
Through the analysis of the archaeobotanical data from both pre-Columbian and Early Colonial sectors of the site, and in conjunction with faunal, shellfish, artifactual, and contextual data, preliminary results reveal that forced relocation, and consequently, change in the use of the landscape, impacted plant and animal foodways in an asymmetric fashion.