Posted: 04 Jan 2011 12:25 PM PST
A newly excavated Zapotec burial site has yielded a fresh interpretation of the ancient, grisly Mesoamerican custom of removing thighbones from the dead.
Across pre-Hispanic Mesoamerica, femurs were believed to contain an individual's power. Aztecs treated them as war trophies, while Zapotec royalty are thought to have used them like sceptres, as symbols of ancestral political might.
The new excavation, in a relatively humble residential dwelling in the ancient city of Mitla, suggests that ancestral thighbone-wielding "may not have been a practice limited to rulers," wrote researchers led by Field Museum archaeologist Gary Feinman in a study published in December in Antiquity.
Thighbone customs of the Zapotec civilization, which reigned from the late 6th century BC to the early 16th century in what is now the Oaxaca valley of Mexico, are best known from a pair of burial sites.
The first, a 16th-century tomb in the city of Monte Alban that was excavated in the 1930s, yielded the remains of nine individuals, along with three extra femurs. These had been cut and painted, suggesting Aztec-style trophy use.
In the 1970s, another 16th-century tomb was excavated, this time in the smaller city of Lambityeco. It was part of a palatial residence, clearly occupied by rulers, six of whom had been buried there — but only three of their thighbones remained. The rest were missing.
Friezes on the wall depicted men holding what appeared to be femurs, giving rise to the interpretation of thighbones as scepters. Subsequent burial excavations have supported this hypothesis, but the sites have tended to be poorly preserved, with skeletons missing many bones.
The tomb excavated by Feinman at Mitla was extremely well-preserved, and had never been disturbed — except, that is, by someone who broke open the tomb, removed a thighbone, then carefully resealed it, leaving a bowl as an offering.
According to Feinman's team, that offering suggests a veneration for the deceased. As the tomb was part of a residence — Zapotec dead were commonly buried in this fashion, with dwellings occupied for generations — it had likely been opened by a descendant.
Meanwhile, the upper portion of the skeleton was in slight disarray, while the lower portion was undisturbed except for the missing femur. The researchers interpret this as evidence of a generational gap. Whoever opened the tomb knew where it was, but not how it was aligned; they accidentally broke into the top part first, realized their mistake, then gently removed the thighbone.
The residence was located on a terraced hillside Mitla, part of a relatively nondescript neighborhood, well down from the dwellings of rulers at the top. It was, however, in the center of the neighborhood, atop a rocky promontory that would have made it an ideal lookout. The researchers think it belonged to someone like a ward boss, revered by his descendants.
To Feinman, the generational gap hinted at by this site, and the common dating of Zapotec thighbone customs to its Late Classic period, shortly before conquest by the Aztecs and then the Spanish, suggest the structure of society and tenor of life at the empire's end.
As Zapotec power dwindled, so did its centralized authorities. Prominent local families gained power. This was rooted in personal and lineal networks, rather than in political tradition. And to demonstrate their legitimacy, families showed off their ancestors' bones.
Images: 1) Burial site at Mitla, with arrow pointing to missing femur./Antiquity. 2) Frieze at Lambityeco depicting man holding a femur./Antiquity.
Citation: "The missing femur at the Mitla Fortress and its implications." By Gary M. Feinman, Linda M. Nicholas and Lindsey C. Baker. Antiquity, Vol. 84 No. 326, December 2010.
Posted: 04 Jan 2011 04:00 AM PST
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Wired Science's most popular stories of 2009 featured a wide range of topics including sharks, zombies, spiders, meteor showers and strange clouds. But this year, we seemed to have homed in on two of your favorite topics: spiders and space.
Among the top stories, we've got some very big and very old spiders, as well as one of our favorite mind-blowing space photos ever, Mars, Jupiter and the sun.
Here are the ones that caught the most eyes this year from No. 10 up to the most popular story of the year.
10. Sleeping Mars Rover Finds Evidence of Liquid WaterOctober 28
Ten months after officially giving up on getting Spirit out of the Martian sand trap that ensnared it last year, NASA announced the rover had made perhaps its biggest discovery in that very spot.
Spirit's wheels dug up soil beneath the crusty surface that contains minerals thought to be hematite, silica and gypsum, which don't dissolve easily in water. But just below this soil, there are layers of iron sulfate minerals, which do dissolve easily. These layers suggest water, maybe in the form of frost or snow, seeped into the ground relatively recently and carried the soluble minerals deeper into the soil.
Sadly, this serendipitous discovery may be Spirit's last. NASA hasn't heard from the rover since it went into hibernation for the Martian winter in March.
Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell University
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