Rick W. A. Smith, Ph.D.

My research program includes both lab and field-based work spanning multiple sites across the Americas. In Central and South America, my work focuses on the molecular impacts of early urbanism, imperialism, ethnic and gender inequalities, and sociopolitical change in ancient societies. In North America, my work focuses on the genetic and ecological impacts of settler colonialism.

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Research Area One

Ancient Urbanism and Imperialism


Ancient Imperialism in the Andes

My work on ancient Imperialism primarily focuses on the Wari, a culture that emerged around 600 CE and became the first expansive empire in South America. From the large urban capitol of Huari in the Ayacucho Basin, the Wari spread through much of what is now northern, southern, and coastal Peru, achieving unprecedented influence across a vast area of the central Andes. By the first millenium CE, however, the Wari empire began to decline during a period of dramatic ecological and sociopolitical change. In the aftermath of imperial decline, people had less access to foods like maize and were at far greater risk of injury and death as violence and warfare spread through the former imperial heartland.

While bioarchaeologists have documented changes in diet and rates of skeletal trauma across the Wari imperial transition, I am interested in how these dramatic changes in lived experience may have impacted people’s biology even more deeply than what we can see on the surface of their bones. My research therefore looks at whether the Wari imperial transition had effects at the DNA level. To do this, I developed methods for reconstructing cytosine methylation in ancient DNA (Smith et al. 2015). Because patterns of cytosine methylation in the genome can change with differences in diet and exposure to trauma, reconstructing methylation in ancient DNA may provide new insights into the biological impacts of ancient events. My research shows that there were significant changes in DNA methylation patterns across the Wari imperial transition (Smith et al. in review). This work is yielding new insights into the biological effects of environmental and sociopolitical change in the ancient Andes, showing how shifting regimes of power can shape biology over many centuries.

This research was funded by the Wenner Gren Foundation.


Early Urbanism in Mesoamerica

In addition to my work on ancient imperialism, I am also interested in the ways that large ancient cities formed and how ethnic and gender inequalities impacted both genetic and epigenetic variation over time. My research on ancient urbanism focuses on two of the most influential cities anywhere in the ancient world: Teotihuacan (in what is now the Basin of Mexico) and Caracol (in what is now lowland Belize).

Teotihuacan was the most influential city in Mesoamerica until 550/650 CE and Caracol was one of the largest cities of the classic lowland Maya. Both cities were complex urban centers with elaborate city planning and multi-ethnic communities that reached populations of more than 100,000 residents. However, they differed in their settlement patterns and their treatment of ethnic differences. At Teotihuacan, neighborhoods within the city’s urban core were often divided along class and ethnic lines, marked by clear distinctions in material culture and mortuary practices. At Caracol, residential groups shared a more cohesive culture, with migrants to the city adopting collective conventions in material culture and mortuary treatment. My research is evaluating how different systems of power and inequality across these two ancient cities may have differentially impacted genetic and epigenetic varaition.

This research was funded by the William H. Neukom Institute for Computational Science.


For an authoritative guide to violence and Wari Imperialism, check out this book from my colleague Dr. Tiffiny Tung.


Cytosine methylation is a chemical modification of DNA that can change the activity of genes without changing the underlying DNA sequence itself.


Learn more about the Teotihuacan Research Laboratory, one of the locations of my field research in San Juan, Mexico. For a comprehensive book on Teotihuacan in the English language, check out this volume by Dr. George Cowgill.


Learn more about the Caracol Archaeological Project, led by Drs. Arlen and Diane Chase. Also, see this blog entry for a bit more detail about my first field season at Caracol.


Research Area Two

Genetic and Ecological Impacts of Settler Colonialism


Genomic Impacts of Settler Colonialism

MORE SOON! My work focuses on the ways that genome science has helped shape what persons and histories count as Indigenous. How settler colonialism has reshaped genetic diversity in the americas.

Molecular Ecologies of Settler Colonialism



Indigenoust STS Lab