Studying Maya bioarchaeology

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15 Scopus citations


My great desire was to discover an ancient sepulchre, which we had sought in vain among the ruins of Uxmal.. . . ... We continued the work six hours, and the whole appearance of things was so rude that we began to despair of success, when, on prying up a large flat stone, we saw underneath a skull. . . . I was exceedingly anxious to get the skeleton out entire, but it was impossible to do so. .. . as this fthe earth] was removed it all fell to pieces. .. . ... I had them fthe bones] carried ... to Uxmal, and thence I bore them away.... In their rough journeys on the backs of mules and Indians they were so crumbled and broken . .. and they [the bones} left me one night in a pocket-handkerchief to be carried to Doctor S. G. Morton of Philadelphia. . . . this gentleman . , . says that this skeleton, dilapidated as it is, has afforded him some valuable facts, and has been a subject of some interesting reflections. ... The bones are those of a female. Her height did not exceed five feet three or four inches. The teeth are perfect, and not appreciably worn, while the epiphyses, those infallible indications of the growing state, have just become consolidated, and mark the completion of adult age. ... The skull was crushed into many pieces, but, by a cautious manipulation, Doctor Morton succeeded in reconstructing the posterior and lateral portions. The occiput is remarkably flat and vertical, while the lateral or parietal diameter measures no less than five inches and eight tenths. A chemical examination of some fragments of the bones proves them to be almost destitute of animal matter, which, in the perfect osseous structure, constitutes about thirty-three parts in the hundred. On the upper part of the left tibia there is a swelling of the bone, called, in surgical language, a node, an inch and a half in length, and more than half an inch above the natural surface. This morbid condition may have resulted from a variety of causes, but possesses greater interest on account of its extreme infrequency among the primitive Indian population of the country (Stephens 1843:276-282). An antiquarian enthusiasm for Maya sepulchres led the 19th century excavator-explorer/lawyer-diplomat, John L. Stephens, to develop one of the earliest collaborative investigations of a Maya interment. Eager to learn as much as possible about ancient Maya through the study of their remains, Stephens submitted his find to the premier American physical anthropologist of the day, Dr. Samuel George Morton. Morton carefully described a range of biological attributes, including stature, cranial form, pathology, chemical composition, age, and sex of the deceased, features which continue to interest Mayanists today. The collaboration with Morton stimulated Stephens to address a prominent 19th century theoretical issue, the origin of the peoples who built the great cities of the Americas. The physical similarity of the Maya remains he recovered from the ruins within the hacienda of San Francisco (which site he attributed to the ancient Maya city of Ticul) to those of South American mummies caused him to conclude that "these crumbling bones declare, as with a voice from the grave, that we cannot go back to any ancient nation of the Old World for the builders of these cities; they are not the works of people who have passed away, and whose history is lost, but of the same great race which, changed . . . still clings around their ruins" (Stephens 1843:284). Just as the study of human skeletal remains led Stephens to examine a key controversy of his day, this volume reports perspectives on competing contemporary models for the development of Maya complexity, for the Maya collapse, and for the impact of the Spanish entrada upon indigenous Maya. The Stephens-Morton discussion also underscores the fragile condition of their "dilapidated" skeleton and the painstaking procedures required to gain human biological data. Although poor preservation continues to challenge Maya bioarchaeologists, the many significant contributions contained in the previous chapters illustrate that the information gained through the excavation and study of Maya burials continues to be well worth the effort. This volume (Danforth et al.) presents a comprehensive bibliography of Maya physical anthropology, including contributions from virtually all the prominent (physical) anthropologists of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Morton, Virchow, Boas, Hooton, Hrdlicka, Comas, and Stewart have each added to our knowledge of ancient Maya. As in the Stephens-Morton example cited above, topical foci ranged widely. Health, stature, sex ratios, and age-at-death have all been considered by scientists who have studied ancient Maya remains. Yet, as emphasized by Webster in his introductory chapter, only recently have studies of ancient human remains and their contexts become well integrated with archaeological agendas. Webster argues that since his graduate student days of the 1960s "much has changed very rapidly." He attributes the increased prominence of biological anthropology within Maya archaeology to (1 ) increased archaeological emphasis upon recovery of large samples and detailed contextual data, and (2) recently developed sophisticated biochemical methods. Even so, skeletal samples, some of them large, have accumulated since the days of the Harvard-Peabody (Gordon 1896; 1898) expeditions and have accelerated, especially during the era of excavation begun by the Carnegie Institution during the 1920s. As illustrated by Danforth et al. and to be elaborated below, interpretations of health and disease, as well as genetic relationships, have been amenable to physical anthropological inquiry since the time of Morton and Stephens. Clearly, interpretations of ancient community health have become more prominent in recent decades (Buikstra and Cook 1980; Ubelaker 1982), and skeletal biology has in general been a highly descriptive, rather than comparative, interpretative, or theoretical, enterprise, both within the pages of the American Journal of Physical Anthropology (Lovejoy et al. 1982) and without (Washburn 1953; Buettner-Janusch 1969). It seems clear, however, that the degree to which physical anthropological data assume prominence in archaeological inquiries also has to do with the theoretical orientation of contemporary archaeologists. When there was interest in establishing a complex set of social statuses appropriate to a city, differences in burial disposal forms were identified (e.g., Morley 1910). As it became important to bolster arguments for a commoner-ruler status dichotomy, priestly and other elite interments were emphasized (e.g., Thompson 1954). One reason for the recent visibility of human biological data within archaeological inquiries develops from a convergence of theoretical interests developed since the 1970s. Skeletal biologists have been concerned with community health and the long-term impact of changing environmental and cultural factors, including diet and culturally mediated differential access to resources. Archaeologists, including those working in the Maya area, influenced by the then "new" or processual archaeology, systems theory, and human ecology, discovered much to their liking within contemporary skeletal biological approaches (Wright 1994). This conjunction has encouraged enhanced cooperation and increased activity. As Webster emphasizes, the linkage may not yet be "mature" but it has already been remarkably productive, as evidenced by the papers in this state-of-the-art Maya bioarchaeology symposium.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationBones of the Maya
Subtitle of host publicationStudies of Ancient Skeletons
PublisherThe University of Alabama Press
Number of pages8
ISBN (Print)0817353763, 9780817353766
StatePublished - Dec 1 2006
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Social Sciences(all)
  • Arts and Humanities(all)


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