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Bioarchaeology in the Maya World:

Changing Perspectives for the Past and Consequences for the Future

Ellery Kate Lungmus

Fall 2007 Great Debates in Archaeology Dr. Shinu Abraham

Contemporary bioarchaeology in a Maya context has converted the ancient Maya from a distant, temple-building abstraction to a relatable aggregate of individuals with understandable concerns, hopes, and interests. For the most part this relatability is a construct of a contemporary archaeological paradigm. In other words, bioarchaeology is not a static procedure but rather a practice highly dependent on the social norms of the time. Current interests are reflected in the questions posed to the archaeological record, creating a sort of metanarrative in which we may be answering questions about the past but more importantly we are reflecting our own personal and societal questions and concerns. The vulnerability of archaeology to shifting social paradigms is the result of its origination in a reflexive point of inquiry. Because of its relationship to the dead, bioarchaeology unlike archaeology in general is fraught with taboo. The increasing interest in Maya bioarchaeology is indicative of a contemporary interest in the life and death of society and has been facilitated by postprocessual theoretical deconstructions of the Western taboo surrounding the corpse. Ultimately, however Maya studies and archaeology in general are highly dependent on social movements that shape theory and practice in addition to framing the conclusions that bolster those theories. Death is a difficult concept to contend with for a Western paradigm that purports to control the world through logic. As with any other taboo, we respond to death predictably: we rationalize it, we mediate decomposition culturally, and we explain the unknown consistently in culturally appropriate terms (Douglas 1966). Judeo-Christian and Greco-Roman philosophies have been woven together into our modern Western culture that regards the body as tainted and emotion as illogical and unreasonable, which has powerful implications for the way in which we regard death and the corpse (Emerick

2000:35). The human corpse represents the failure of the modern Western paradigm to successfully control nature with science. In order to maintain the paradigm we mediate decomposition (a natural event) culturally by hiding and avoiding it. In the field of Maya archaeology decomposition is nearly impossible to avoid because interment of family members beneath structures was a common practice; often to excavate even a residential platform is to uncover a human burial (Webster 1997:4). The traditional response to the corpse taboo in the archaeological record is to create distance. Archaeology and bioarchaeology specifically are historically guilty of distancing themselves from the physical selves that have comprised cultures despite their intent to reconstruct human life in past cultures in past times (Larsen 2000:xii). The attempt to maintain a certain amount of distance between the living and the dead is most evident in a temporal analysis of the discipline of bioarchaeology from its origins through modern practice. The shift from complete disinterest in recovered skeletal materials or a purely diagnostic, medical interest has given way to the modern concern for the unique, individualistic stories of each skeleton and an interest in peopling the past by striving to interpret the osteobiography of individuals (Beck 2006:83). As postprocessualist thought has largely gained control of the modern archaeological paradigm, the search for the individual experience in the past has become a primary interest of archaeologists. These paradigm shifts are by no means descriptive of complete breaks in ideology but rather general trends, and in fact the history of archaeological theory is rife with conflicting opinions and methods. As late as 1989 for example, a Dumbarton Oaks conference held in Washington D.C. on the Classic Maya collapse failed to make any mention of the relevance of skeletal evidence to this question (Whittington and Reed

1997a:ix). In 1994 this absence was criticized in a collaborative publication entitled Bones of the Maya, and vocalized the pointed hope that archaeologists will become more aware of the potential of skeletal remains and will consider excavation techniques which permit recovery in better condition and in increasing numbers (Whittington and Reed 1997a:x). Archaeological inquiry is bound to a metanarrative in which the society that generates research questions is ultimately reflecting itself and its own concerns. The Maya culture is famous for its demographic collapse in the 10th century AD, which involved a 90% reduction in population in a span of 100-150 years (Lowe 1985:62). Interest in the Maya experience stems largely from our own fear of decline following cultural decadence, which is increasingly evident in Western society and has crept into popular culture (for example see Jared Diamons recent book, ominously titled simply Collapse). Consequently bioarchaeological research has focused on several aspects of society highly relevant to the modern experience. Among these are diet and nutrition, the human/ecological relationship, quality of life, and health, especially in terms of social stratification and the Classic Maya collapse event (Larsen 2000:181). Bioarchaeology in the Americas has also been particularly emphasized in the midst of an ongoing dialogue among economists, historians, and anthropologists about the connection between economic growth and health, which is intimately related to many other aspects of human life in society (Larsen 2000:181-82). Although not traditionally at the forefront of innovation in skeletal studies, Maya archaeology in fact offers a particularly fertile field for recovery of mortuary remains and development and testing of methods for their analysis (Webster 1997:4), and

contemporary cultural concerns have revitalized Maya studies and discovered its suitability to bioarchaeology. During the Classic period (300-900 AD) the population densities for the Maya area were very high, and this coupled with considerable biological and cultural continuity means that the total number of ancient Maya who lived in this area is extremely large. In addition, the Maya preferred inhumation burials within residential groups, and because the Maya built environment is unusually conspicuous and well-preserved, burials are frequent byproducts of excavation, no matter what the specific research issues might be (Webster 1997:4-6). The conservatism of bioarchaeology because of corpse and decomposition taboos has forced archaeologists to respond to these discoveries in culturally acceptable ways, however, and even today researchers often focus exclusively on mortuary space (Ashmore and Geller 2005), mortuary ritual (Oakdale 2005), and mortuary analysis (Chapman 2005). Bioarchaeology is a relatively new sub discipline of archaeology largely because of its dependence on modern technology for many of its current methods. The term itself arose discretely in the U.S. and in the United Kingdom, where it carries slightly different connotations. In the 1970s bioarchaeology was coined by Grahame Clark in the United Kingdom meaning inferences derived from the study of archaeologically recovered faunal remains and has since been broadened to include all biological material in the archaeological record, though it is occasionally distinguished from human osteoarchaeology (Buikstra 2006:7-8). In the United States Jane Buikstra and Robert L. Blakely published the term in 1977, integrating archaeology with human osteology, burial analysis, social organization, division of labor, paleodemography, genetic relationships, diet and disease (Buikstra 1997: 67).

Prior to the late twentieth century, however, skeletal analysis in general lacked value, standardization, and interest. In order to understand both the origins of bioarchaeology as a legitimate field of study and the changing response to the corpse taboo it is important to appreciate how the field has evolved with respect to this issue. A timeline of the preliminary and key players in Maya archaeology that considers human remains as critical to archaeology is both relevant and appropriate to an analysis of bioarchaeology in terms of shifting paradigms. Not all of these figures were significantly influenced by those preceding them chronologically, but the trends noted are logical outgrowths of the preceding paradigms. It is important that none of these social movements be seen as evidence of progress towards a modern apex; instead, they should be considered the most fitting and current approach for each subsequent period. Trigger (2006) notes the weaknesses of a unilinear concept of shifting paradigms, identifying its failure to account for why archaeologistsnever agree about high level theory (8). He points to the coexistence of several rival paradigms at any one time as evidence of this idea, which means that at the core of the issue no one paradigm can provide better explanations than another. When the question of how to evaluate human bones was initially broached, it was logical that doctors and anatomists in the nineteenth century were the ones to perform the skeletal analyses. In terms of the corpse taboo these professionals were the best trained both to distance themselves from the individual and to diagnose pathologies. Skeletal examples were promptly seized upon especially by medical doctors as a means of supporting current scientific theories until the reaction against this practice confined the study of human remains to obsessive classifying and an avoidance of interpretation. This

approach was later rejected as ultimately worthless to anthropological inquiry and skeletal samples became the central component of studies, with theories growing out of the samples themselves. This practice is congruent with empirical science, in which hypotheses are dependent on evidence, and is indicative of the growing allegiance of archaeology to science. Ultimately these studies facilitated the beginnings of population reconstruction which has recently developed into the search for the ancient individual. A closer review of the history of Maya skeletal research makes these trends obvious. Although bioarchaeology as a discipline has been only recently discussed the practice has its roots in the medical theory of the late nineteenth century. In 1892 Julius Wolff stated that the form of bone being given, the bone elements place or disperse themselves in the direction of the functional pressure and increase or decrease their mass to reflect the amount of functional pressure (cited in Mays 1998:3; Larsen 1997:195). Consequently, the methods of bioarchaeology are predicated on the fact that the body remodels itself to suit the lifestyle of an individual. Since the aim of contemporary bioarchaeology is to produce an osteobiography of an individual, the properties of bone relative to lifestyle are highly relevant. More traditionally archaeologists have distanced themselves from the tabooed corpse by treating the physical human remains as symbolic of a person instead of actually constituting a person. Similarly bones are often spoken of as objects because of their appearance as solid, inanimate objects. Simon Mays points out that this [treatment of the bones] is deceptive regarding the nature of living bone (Mays 1998:3). This approach tends to confine human remains to a class of archaeological material only slightly different from ceramics, for example, whereas a more contemporary approach acknowledges that the phenomenon of skeletal remodeling

allows us to interpret and recount an individuals story from their corporal remains. The mechanical demands of daily life include habitual postures and movements such as squatting, grinding maize on a metate, hyperdorsiflexion of the toes while kneeling, or bilateral asymmetry and hypertrophy of the humeral muscle attachment sites indicating endurance canoe or kayak paddling, all of which become evident in the skeleton (Larsen 1997:94-95). John L. Stephens introduced the world to the Maya civilization in 1843 as a flourishing, Egypt-like civilization that had been devoured by the forest. The antiquarian interests of the time led Stephens, an excavator-explorer/lawyer-diplomat, to develop one of the earliest investigations of Maya interment through his excavation of sepulchers (Buikstra 1997:222). While archaeology, exploration, and publication were acceptable considering his background, consideration of human remains at the time was not an aspect of this type of pursuit. Instead, Stephens submitted his skeletal finds to Dr. Samuel George Morton, a physical anthropologist who described stature, cranial form, pathology, chemical contribution, age, and sex. Though his findings in this regard may have been sound, the contemporary critique of this paradigm is an excruciating lack of contextualization: Stephens, though functioning in the role of archaeologist, provided no preliminary field notes and no context for the human remains, presenting his skeletal finds instead to a physician. The function of the medical profession is to diagnose, however, and therefore no general conclusions were drawn, no trends were noted, and no higher applications were made (Buikstra 1997:221). Even this approach was novel, however: only occasionally were the skeletal remains of famous burials and impressive tombs such as that of Pakal at Palenque examined at all (Webster 1997:3).

In the 1860s a shared commitment to an evolutionary approach promoted a close alignment between prehistoric archaeology and ethnology in western Europe and the United States (Trigger 2006:166). An evolutionary approach characterizes the paradigm of this time under which cultural variation is explained by biology, and that the ability to progress culturally is therefore determined by race. This paradigm arose in the climate of a new conservatism [that] encouraged a romantic celebration of national and ethnic differences (Trigger 2006:167). The push to identify discrete racial categories scientifically became one of the primary interests of anatomists at this time. This pressure was evident archaeologically as well, as professionals strove not only to identify the racial groups of their own time but to fit the groups (as they were perceived as static) they were discovering in archaeological contexts into the same categories. The forerunners of bioarchaeology, then, were often inflammatory individuals with backgrounds in anatomy or medicine, not archaeology. Morton for example was best known for his publication of the Crania Americana in 1839 which described the physiological differences between what he considered were four species of mankind: Caucasians, Native Americans, Africans, and Asians. His interest in the Maya focused primarily on the craniometric observations that would justify his ranking scheme of human races (Cook 2006:34). Jeffries Wyman, an anatomist and naturalist who worked in the 1850s, also performed craniometric analyses in order to rank innate intelligence, but also focused on establishing behaviors such as cannibalism among ancient groups in the Americas (Buikstra 1997:18). Cemeteries at this time were generally regarded as resources to be mined for comparative collects. These collections were desperately needed to document human variation and to test medically oriented theories (Ubelaker

2006:80). The interest in ancient mortuary sites may be seen as goal-oriented but only to the extent that medically-rooted bioarchaeology sought to obtain normal samples for broad comparative studies (Ubelaker 2006:80) but was not interested in what might be called peopling the past following the aims of contemporary bioarchaeology (Buikstra 1997:10-11). Unlike the archaeological traditions of the classical and Egyptian worlds, the Maya remained unknown on a popular level until relatively recently. In the first decades of the twentieth century Channing Arnold and Frederick J. Tabor Frost published one of the first accounts of the Maya area entitled The American Egypt: A Record of Travel in Yucatan. Geared more toward the vicarious armchair traveler than toward systematic archaeology, the volume focuses on the adventures of the authors with some reference to the Maya ruins they encountered in the jungles of the Yucatan. They reference the efforts of Edward Thompson to wrest from this hole the full measure of its secrets, which ultimately produced the material remains of countless human sacrifices (Arnold and Frost 1909:92). The two adventurers did not waste type describing this sample; instead they documented an examination of many of the skulls [which] satisfied us that they were one and all those of young females between twelve and sixteen years of age. They further asserted that From these facts only one deduction is possible, namely that sacrifices in the cenote did occur, and that such sacrifices were of young girls who were hurled by the priests into the chasm, possibly after defilement by the high-priests in the small building at the pools edge, thus symbolizing the simultaneous surrender of virginity and life to the Rain Deity. (Arnold and Frost 1909: 92-93). Arnold and Frosts agenda is quite clear and far from scientific. Their accounts of adventure and intrigue were published to sell books, and accordingly their apparently


objective examination is entirely fabricated as Hooton would demonstrate later. As a result, this introduction to Maya archaeology can only be considered relevant to bioarchaeology in the sense that the human remains were considered important enough to document and contribute to an understanding of past behavior. At the turn of the 20th century the study of human prehistory as interpreted from the human remains themselves was still largely confined to the work of medical doctors, anatomists, and other scientists. The racist tendencies of the evolutionary approach had coalesced into a culture-historical archaeology that identified ethnicity as the most important factor shaping human history (Trigger 2006:211). Medically-driven skeletal studies at that time were still searching desperately for evidence for human speciation that was based on racial categories, and ancient skeletal samples were used as diagnostic examples for cultural inferiority theories. Like the evolutionary approach, the culturehistorical approach attempted to distinguish separate cultures in the archaeological record by utilizing these diagnostic features and therefore determining cultural continuity, longevity, and ultimately spatial rights. Bioarchaeology is a very conservative discipline because of corpse taboos, and relegating it to the realm of medicine was both comfortable and appropriate. Because of this, its function was largely the same in terms of justifying scientifically (in an anatomical sense) the racism of both paradigms. The culture-historical archaeological approach was particularly popular in German archaeology in general, where the identification of cultural homeland had devastating consequences in the form of the World War II (Trigger 2006:240). Immediately there was a reaction against these methods in which the theory changed to reflect the fear of drawing conclusions that could be used to rank peoples. The search for


discrete cultures in prehistory had devastating consequences and therefore a strong reaction against the use of archaeology to perpetuate racist theories. Subsequent archaeological and bioarchaeological methods shifted to avoid data interpretation completely as a result. In 1925 Oliver Garrison Ricketson published an overview of burials discovered to date in the Maya area. Ricketson, an anthropologist trained in medicine at Harvard, excavated at Baking Pot in what is now Belize and lamented the unevenness and paucity of the skeletal research archaeologists had published previously (Ricketson 1925:381). Contemporary bioarchaeologists would agree with this statement immediately but Ricketsons frustration is in fact indicative of the obsessive categorization that would define the archaeological paradigm of the next several decades. This categorization is another aspect of the culture-historical approach which sought to identify discrete cultures based on archaeological materials. As far as he was concerned, previous work had failed to document the metric information that he was interested in; he was not in fact lamenting the lack of interpretation that frustrates archaeologists today. Ricketson mentioned and criticized a specific but anonymous writer who wrote that He had entered over one hundred chultuns (underground storage cisterns), of which he found many that had been utilized as burial chambers or as ossuaries; yet in his report only thirty-four chultuns are described, the article concluding with the remark that to enumerate or attempt to describe the subterranean chambers which furnished no data would only serve to fill up the report with useless matter. It is to be regretted that a brief summary, giving exact numbers, could not have been appended, for it would enable us to state definitely that a given percent of chultuns were used as burial places in this case (Ricketson 1925:381). Ricketson made it very clear that he regarded only certain specific objects as constituting valuable archaeological material. He lists the mounds excavated at Baking Pot in order of


frequency of burial mode inhumation, cyst-burial, or cremation but avoids drawing any conclusions based on his numbers and percentages. In one tomb in particular he notes the inclusion of two skeletons, four incisors with circular jade inlays, twelve earthen vessels, pottery whistles, shell ornaments, jade beads, bone needlesThis is a rich find, and rather overshadows finds in other tombs (Ricketson 1925:391). Clearly the richness is not related to either significance of skeletal information or to conclusions that may be drawn concerning the individuals interred or the society that interred them; anthropological archaeology had not yet come into vogue. Ricketsons research methods and interests reflect earlier paradigms and foreshadow future approaches. Like Stephens, Arnold, and Frost who marketed the Maya culture to Europe, and diagnosticians who identified skeletal anomalies, Ricketson was particularly committed to mentioning curiosities. Large tombs lacking grave furniture or elaborate art, bones painted red, teeth filed and inlaid with hematite, and the burial of decapitated heads or the sacrifice of young women and children were all worthy of notice: the placement, position, nature of grave goods, and physical peculiarities were assiduously documented (Ricketson 1925:388-89), but seem to have been interesting only as far as they were in fact peculiar. In this way Ricketsons work reflects the search for diagnostic features but also commits itself to a subsequent paradigm of almost directionless accumulation and organization of physical data. In the decade of the 1930s there was an increase in physical anthropological publications. A full 33 papers were published concerning Maya physical data sets, equal to the number in the entire previous century combined (Buikstra 1997:223). Human remains were still largely disregarded, and even a publication entitled A Note on Maya


Cave Burials by Mary Butler was entirely dedicated to the fact that the Maya used caves for burials with no mention of the bones or the people they comprised (Butler 1934). Studies that did include this information still focused on bone measurements with a push for standardization in order to identify cranial types and ultimately racial categories. By the 1940s in the field of Maya studies, Earnest Albert Hooton had redescribed the sample of bone dredged from the Well of Sacrifice at Chichn Itz in terms of these racial categories. Large sample sizes today lend themselves to comparison and trends, but although Hooton was trained as a full-time physical anthropologist and not as a medical doctor his emphasis remained on a few characteristics such as sex, stature, and dental alteration (Hooton 1940; Webster 1997:3; Beck and Sievert 2005). Interestingly, however, he observed that not only were the individuals described by Arnold and Frost not uniformly women between the ages of 12 and 16, but some were infants, a few showed clear evidence of pregnancy (refuting the virgin sacrifice theory), and a reasonable proportion were even men (Hooton 1940:273). Large collections such as the Chichn Itz sample were generally treated as marginal data sets included in appendices but always separate from a more systematic focus on architecture, stratigraphy, artifacts, art, and inscriptions (Webster 1997:3). Hootons report on the Chichn Itz skeletal material is therefore quite short because of its limitations in scope: he considers only morphological markers in relation to cranial deformation, their measurements, and how they compare to other standardized norms. For example, high nasal bridges are perhaps a little more common than in most American Indian crania, and in fact the classical Mayas were not very different from the White hybridized type which we call Armenoid (Hooton 1940:274-280). Drawing


further from his comparisons to these racial standards, Hooton intimates that these data might be used to hypothesize the geographical origins of the Maya, but does not go so far as to discuss any such clear hypothesis. Where skeletal remains were examined they were simply classified, consistent with the mid twentieth century culture-historical paradigm. Ruben de la Borbolla in 1940 (de la Borbolla 1940) and Javier Romero Molina in 1951 (Molina and Fastlicht 1951) both created elaborate taxonomies to categorize the observed patterns of dental modification in ancient Maya samples. Borbollas scheme was based not on contextualized finds but on collections that he found at the Department of Physical Anthropology at the Museo Nacional de Antropologa in Mexico. Appropriately, he designated 24 types (based on physical measurements and characteristics) by the letters A-X, ad then further grouped them into 7 basic types (A-G) divided into several variants (Mandujano and Izazola 1987). The lack of contextualization and concluding remarks on his data renders it apparently useless, but the fact that he focused only on collections housed in museums demonstrates the lack of concern with those critical aspects of contemporary practice. In 1951 Ledyard Smith and Alfred Kidder published the site of Nebaj, Guatemala. The title of the report succinctly delineates the relative importance of bioarchaeology in the larger scheme of the investigation: Excavations at Nebaj with Notes on the Skeletal Material. Smith began the report by contextualizing the site, then launching into a documentation of the fieldwork itself, identifying and describing groups, mounds, tombs, burials, and caches. Kidder then describes the artifacts present at the site and commits a final section to the discussion of the research (Smith, Kidder, and Stewart 1951). The first


appendix is a list of monuments; the second includes the notes on skeletal materials. T.D. Stewart goes about these notes in a concise and highly organized manner, but there is a stark lack of interpretation or conclusions that might be drawn under the influence of a contemporary paradigm. Kidder in particular is well-known for his contribution to the systematic study of culture history in the southwestern United States, and believed that one could construct such a history by studying the spatial distributions of combinations of artifact types andtheir chronological transformations (Trigger 2006:281). As is evident in the report on Nebaj, the contribution of skeletal information was simply not regarded as relevant to this undertaking. The 1960s saw a sustained increase in Maya bioarchaeological literature though there were still few studies of burials or remains. Evan Vogt lamented the paucity of first-rate physical anthropological material, either skeletal or on living populations for the Maya area, referring to the often poor preservation in the humid tropics (Vogt 1964, cited in Saul 1972:3). In the 1970s Altar de Sacrificios in the western Petn region of Guatemala, one of the most famous Maya sites, was published by Frank P. Saul. Saul himself notes that the sherds of pottery and vestiges of decayed structures have been extensively excavated, examined, and analyzed in the pursuit of information pertaining to the above matters, but the actual remains, as represented by their skeletons, of the people who made the pottery and built the structures have been largely ignored (Saul 1972:3). He cites the fact that Mayanists, discouraged by poor preservation and cultural cranial and dental deformity have neglected to discuss the skeletal materials and instead discard them as useless. Instead of limiting the Altar analysis to basic data such as age,


sex, and cultural manipulations, Saul proposes a large-scale analysis of health status over time, especially with regard to the apparent 10th century decline (Saul 1972:4). In contrast to earlier medically and diagnostically driven investigations, the work that Saul performed at Altar de Sacrificios was in relation to a larger demographic question. The skeletal collection comprised of 90 individuals of which 63 were adults and 27 were subadults. Sexing subadults is nearly impossible, but of the 63 adults Saul identified 31 males, 21 females, and 11 were recorded as unknown (Saul 1972:4). The escalating desire to reconcile archaeology with the now critically important empirical sciences in order to establish credibility is evident in his research plan. This methodology is congruent with the New Archaeology of the 1970s, championed by Lewis Binford who assumed that there was a high degree of regularity in human behavior and this was reflected in material culture (Trigger 2006:400). Saul outlined specific research goals with respect to his analysis: his interests surpassed more simple determinants and encompassed the demographic characteristics of age and sex, health status through pathological observation, measurable physical characteristics to evaluate population composition or social statuses, genetic origins and continuity, and the demographic collapse (Saul 1972:8). The bioarchaeological work at Altar de Sacrificios ostensibly evidences a positivist, empirical frame of inquiry but upon closer inspection is riddled with inconsistencies. 54 skeletons had in fact been discarded in the field before the 90 were examined in the lab and were not described at all in the publication except to note that they were unfit for examination. Between the conclusions drawn in the laboratory and the field notes recorded at the time of excavation, sex assessments disagreed in 44% of the


adults, and age diagnoses disagreed in 27% of the entire sample (Saul 1972:35). This suggests that though the methods appeared scientific and the presentation was free of apparent subjectivity, improvements such as standardization were necessary to publish this approach as scientific. In 1997 Stephen Whittington and David Reed reevaluated the site report and skeletal notes, noting that when osteological data were not ignored by the participants, they were treated like site-report appendices (Whittington and Reed 1997a:ix). These site-report appendices do demonstrate Sauls attempt to take individuals in context, however: instead of defining each solely by intriguing characteristics or only recording percentages of characteristics, Saul ties together age, sex, and the presence of deformation or lesion in a single diagram that records individual entities (Saul 1972:37). This approach is in marked contrast to many others in which individuals are subsumed in percentages of these characteristics only. The data Saul recorded on Altar de Sacrificios remains valuable to modern methods (unlike craniometrics, for example), and what is striking in his study is his dedication to incorporating whatever means available to explain his anomalies. While structure and artifacts were clearly the focus as befitted the status quo, Saul explores his skeletal data with a clear commitment to a deeper understanding than numbers alone would provide. For example, he documents that nearly every individual in one sample showed evidence of having suffered from anemia, that excluding old adults, only two of 40 had dentition free of tooth loss or caries, and that 37 of 63 adults had lesions indicating illness at the age of three or four (Saul 1974:59, cited in Marquez and Angel 1997; Saul 1972:66). Acknowledging that simply counting revealed little, he attempted to explain the shocking percentages of endemic disease and poor nutrition that he was


recording: according to the World Health Organization report of 1968, for example, Saul noted that iron loss is intensified in the tropics due to excessive sweating, and intestinal bleeding and chronic diarrhea associated with parasites (Scrimshaw, et al. 1968, cited in Saul 1972:42). Following this and previous lines of research, he suggested that the daily iron requirements for lactating and pregnant women in the tropics is reasonably twice that of women in temperate zones, intimating that high rates of malnutrition, especially irondeficiency anemia, would have been almost inevitable (Lawson and Stewart 1967:22, cited in Saul 1972). He began to reconstruct diet, which is a very contemporary anthropological concern, and incorporated ethnographic research on the diets of modern rural Yucatecans (G.D. Williams 1931:245, cited in Saul 1972:57). Saul attempted to use the Altar de Sacrificios skeletal collection to ask the big questions that have traditionally been posed to the Maya world, such as whether or not syphilis is evident in ancient Old World populations and what caused the 10th century decline. Like previous diagnosticians he noted a saber shin pathology which might be indicative of syphilis or yaws (Saul 1972:47), and documented the frequency of dental lesions indicative of hypoplasia and childhood illness (Saul 1972: 66-67), but he also indicated an interest in chronological trends with respect to these pathologies (Saul 1972:75). Ultimately Saul remained baffled by the apparently terribly unhealthy population that he was documenting, stating that in fact, one might wonder, not why they declined, but rather, how they managed to survive for so long (Saul 1972:67). His methods were indicative however of significant changes in the focus of archaeology. Sauls work and importantly his interest in trends is evident of a break both from earlier medical approaches and from pure classification as it demonstrates his regard for the


population as a dynamic entity instead of a static body. Changes, or meaningful chronological trends, remain one of the primary interests of an archaeologist documenting a site history. In 1994 Jane Buikstra and Douglas Ubelaker published Standards for Data Collection from Human Skeletal Remains. Although there had been a need for decades to standardize the practice of bioarchaeology, which had been experiencing pressure from academia to pursue more empirical methods, guidelines had not yet been widely accepted. As far as positivist science is concerned, a discipline could hardly consider itself empirical when each researcher used different methods to determine the sex of a skeleton, for example. The markedly different approach taken by Buikstra and Ubelaker was a ranking scheme in which field researchers were to evaluate age and sex markers on a scale of certainty, which allowed that these determinations were not necessarily exact and involved a degree of subjectivity, but they were statistically probable (Buikstra and Ubelaker 1994). The changing bioarchaeological paradigm supported the classification of the early 20th century but emphasized incorporating these data in the attempt to answer several big questions that existed in archaeology. In the Maya world these questions focused on the nature of status differentiation, the nutritional states and disease load of populations, demographic structure, the nature of diet, the implications of skeletal trauma (especially warfare), and the patterns of regional and chronological variation therein (Webster 1997:11). In 1997 Diane Chase published a comparative bioarchaeological report that included the sites of Caracol, Santa Rita Corozal, and Tayasal, which are all Lowland Maya sites. She states basic, empirical data from each of the three as a matter of course


(she overviews the number of recorded interments, the number of formal tombs, and the number of individuals represented by the skeletal materials (Chase 1997:15)), and she critiques the practice of reconstructions of prehistoric population being based on excavation data, exclusive of skeletal or burial remains (as in Ashmore 1981; Culbert and Rice 1990, cited in Chase 1997:15). In the Maya area population counts are often based on structures; Chase noted that at Santa Rita, for example, the maximum individual lifespan of 50 years is likely overestimated, and dwelling patterns and density of structural habitation are largely subjective (Chase 1997:16). This methodology is the reaction to corpse taboos that have rendered bioarchaeology so fundamentally conservative. The difference in Chases approach was her willingness to allow bioarchaeology and artifactual archaeology to be mutually informative. Chase focused on the ability of the human remains to facilitate an analysis and comparison of the three sites, but she also acknowledged that if the population counts based on structural estimates are accepted as reasonable, then the percentage of the population represented in burials varies from a dismal .012% at Tayasal and .05% at Caracol to .26% at Santa Rita during its fluorescence (Chase 1997:19). Chases comparative approach is the logical outgrowth of the increased interest in chronological trends evidenced by archaeological sites. She tends not to draw any sweeping conclusions based on the differences that she recorded, but she sets the stage for these conclusions to be drawn in the future much like the classificatory schemes in the early 20th century set the stage for the New Archaeology of the 1950s. Her primary interests are in the demographics and the physical burials and although she advocates for the primacy of skeletal evidence in site investigations, she avoids discussing the human


remains themselves. This is evident of the interesting archaeological and specifically Western inclination to avoid treating the human corpse in research, which has been traditionally tabooed. At Caracol Chase noted that the quantity of multiple individual burials that have been recovered at Caracol (ca. 39% of the total Late Classic sample; Chase 1994) is striking in comparison to the paucity of these kinds of interments at other lowland sites (Chase 1997:21). At Tikal, for example, only 1.4% of the documented burials contains multiple individuals or suggests secondary burial (Chase 1997:22). These data present a very significant difference between the two sites that has been interpreted as indicating a strong cultural identity at Caracol following a series of successful wars against Tikal (A. Chase and D. Chase 1996, cited in Chase 1997:22). The recorded burial data do not, however, make any mention of the bones of the peoples or the individuals themselves who merited this emphatic symbolic distinction. The aging and sexing data that Chase included is an instrumental component of her comparison between the three sites and of her critique of demographic estimates. There is no argument that the accuracy of these data is impervious to poor preservation or to the precision of the methods used (age determination based on teeth is affected by antemortem tooth loss and other unreliable degenerative changes, for example). She affirms however that the majority of the Caracol sample died between 25-35 years of age, in contrast to the assumption of 50 at Santa Rita (Chase 1997:23). Additionally she records significant demographic differences between the Caracol and Tayasal populations: infant skeletons represent 14.79% of the sample at Caracol but only 5.36% at Tayasal; 11.24% of the sample at Caracol is over the age of 35 compared to 23.21% at Tayasal (Chase 1997:23). In many ways this focus does not differ noticeably from


Ricketsons interest in burial data insofar as they are peculiar or anomalous. Chase is highly unwilling to use or discuss her data, stating merely that It is tempting to ascribe such demographic differences to variations in population density and urban environment, while adding the caveat that they could also be due to poor sampling and a nonrepresentative data set (Chase 1997:23). What is highly different is the theory: while she recognized that science and math were not enough on their own to create a relevant description she was confronted by a disconcerting leap in theory and a step backward in methodology, which needed to be reformed. In 2005 Patricia McAnany synthesized the contributions of several specialists and colleagues to her research at a Preclassic site in Belize into a large volume entitled Kaxob: Ritual, Work, and Family in an Ancient Maya Village. Both the title and the site of Kaxob itself are indicative of a very contemporary focus in archaeology. The shifting interests of Maya archaeology have moved from species to culture and then site to family, and Kaxob is not an illustrious Tikal or Palenque but a small village. Human remains at this site are considered a class of material remains (McAnany 2005:17) and are neither disregarded nor are they the focus of the investigation. Instead the individuals who inhabited this site are incorporated into a study of ritual expression, the built environment, and the enviro-social dynamic (McAnany 2005; Harrison-Buck 2004; Storey 2004). This is a marked departure from approaches characteristic of even a decade earlier. What becomes evident is that as a culture we are no longer seeking curiosities or captivating accounts of foreign lifestyles; rather, archaeology uses analogy and individual focus to make the past relatable to the future. Arguably this is a consequence of globalization borders have opened and communication is easier than it has ever been,


meaning that cultural differences and more importantly, cultural similarities simply no longer shock or interest us. The recent postprocessual critique has called the theoretical underpinnings of objective knowledge into question and this new awareness has changed bioarchaeology drastically. Archaeologists have been far more interested in the manner and repercussions of the transition from material remains to interpretation and fact than in facts themselves. Determinations of age and sex, for example had been dependent on researchers ability to create objective fact from skeletal characteristics, but the fluidity of these characteristics was first emphasized by Buikstra and Ubelaker (1994). The Standards for Data Collection from Human Skeletal Remains recommended sex evaluation along an axis of certainty based on certain sex-determining skeletal traits, particularly the sciatic notch (Buikstra and Ubelaker 1994:19-20). When the relevant parts of the pelvis are not present, other indicators may be used. In the examination of the Preclassic skeletal material from Cuello, Belize, Saul and Saul note the inexactitude of aging and sexing in this sample due to poor preservation and the frequency of secondary, disruptive burials (Saul and Saul 1997:29). Several years after the publication of Buikstra and Ubelakers Standards, Saul and Saul make specific references in their work to the age dependent and sexual dimorphic markers used to draw their conclusions. Intact pelvises were rare and sciatic notch fragments only occasionally conclusive, so less reliable sex markers such as the relative robusticity of the long bones, orbital rims, supramastoid crests, mastoid processes, and the size and shape of teeth and mandibles were used (Saul and Saul 1997:30). Determinations were therefore only probable, according to the authors.


Even more recently the practice of sex determination was criticized by Pamela Geller who critiqued Buikstra and Ubelakers scale of certainty with respect to skeletal sex and individual gender. This scoring system would appear to supplant a strict binary opposition of male and female with a continuum of sexual difference, but it is important to underscore that sexual difference refers to an analysts degree of certainty with respect to categorization and not to the presence of sexual variability or ambiguity (Geller 2006:598). The denial of gender as a culturally constructed category (as far as processualism is concerned, these constructs are irrelevant if they cannot be tested) in favor of sex as a biological binary demonstrates both ethnocentrism and scientism, and queer and feminist archaeologists have attempted to incorporate this particular metanarrative into interpretations of the past (Cannon 2005). In terms of postprocessual archaeology, both ethnocentrism and scientism which assume the existence of a better viewpoint are acknowledged but avoided. As modern research and theoretical inquiry have pressured the dated binary of biological sex, the difficulty of divorcing oneself from the present in order to understand the past becomes clearer. This realization of a fundamental limit to our objective abilities may in fact be the peak of postprocessualism before the paradigm shifts once again. Gellers critique is the ultimate antithesis to the classificatory schemes of the mid twentieth century as she emphasizes ambiguity and fluidity and specifically advocates a reevaluation of the feasibility of our binaries (Geller 2006:604). The historic and contemporary practice of bioarchaeology is limited by the inconsistencies and caprice of the archaeological record. J. Eric S. Thompson noted that one of the wildest hazards of history is that which dictates to posterity the particular


feature by which it recalls a preceding age. Rome, by some accident, is almost all aqueducts in our recollection, Egypt all funeralssuch chance survivals cause the oddest misconceptions, the most lopsided reconstructions of the past (Thompsen 1954:39). The Maya have been all pottery and temples in our understanding, but the growth of bioarchaeology as a discipline has reintroduced humanism and individualism to the prehistoric Maya past. The theoretical discourse that dominates the current archaeological paradigm encourages the reevaluation of the underpinnings of taboo affecting archaeological research. The earliest bioarchaeologists logically were surgeons and anatomists: unlike the laypeople who pursued archaeology at the time, they had been trained to separate individual from body which allowed them to create an understanding that did not challenge paradigmatic propriety. Recently computerized and X-Ray tomography have allowed archaeologists to entertain the safe difference between themselves and death that began with the first diagnosticians and typologists. Postprocessual theory calls for the reconciliation of skeletal analysis with the general acknowledgement that what bioarchaeologists are in fact doing is interfering in the personally and culturally constructed space of individuals in whom we can often see ourselves. The methods of bioarchaeology must then consider an ethical dilemma, which is a very postprocessual approach to science. In other words, one of the defining characteristics of contemporary theory is self-reflection, or considering the ways in which archaeologists frame their research and questions based on their own experience. Susan Anton critiques traditional bioarchaeology in this light by noting that it may be unethical to describe human skeletal samples without first discussing the way in which we approach our descriptions (Anton 2005:138). Forensic


anthropology is an applied branch of bioarchaeology whose scientists analyze skeletal remains for both legal and humanitarian purposes (Walsh-Haney and Lieberman 2005:121) and therefore is particularly ethically conscious. The current movements toward legislating and social policy are discussed by Carolyn Fluehr-Lobban, an anthropological ethicist. She instructs anthropologists (this is particularly applicable to bioarchaeologists who have traditionally used the remains of humans for their own purposes) to weigh the kinds, degrees, duration, and probability of good and bad outcomes, and to avoid misrepresentation in all stages of analysis (Fluehr-Lobban 1998:190-91; Walsh-Haney and Lieberman 2005:121). Within this paradigm, then, matters of ethics are an ordinary, not extraordinary, part of anthropological practice (Fluehr-Lobban 1998:173). The reason for ethical consideration of human remains is a moral construct; however, in the Maya area specifically the crucial ethical issue is that the contemporary Maya still inhabit this region and many descendants of the people whose remains bioarchaeologists study view ancestral remains as objects of veneration that should be protected from what they see as the indignity of examination by scientists whose motivations they consider suspect at best and immoral at worst. (Larsen and Walker 2005:111) Maya cosmology specifically includes ancestor veneration (Duncan 2005). In the United States the disconnect between the descendents and their culture and the scientists who consider human remains full of research potential has been addressed by the passing of the Native American Grave Protection and Repatriation Act. Such legislation does not exist in the countries comprising the Maya area, but for American bioarchaeologists this act calls into question the reasons for studying human remains, considering the ethical


concerns. According to Larsen and Walker human remains are a unique source of historical information on genetic relationships and human-environment interactions and are thus critical to our understanding of the adaptive history of our species (Larsen and Walker 2005:113). Skeletal data remain critical to the evaluation of archaeological sites and ancient lifeways. Ethical discourse has forced bioarchaeologists to justify themselves on a broad scale. The arguments for and against the disruption of ancient graves are compelling and consequently a set of ethical responsibilities to the individuals is required. Larsen and Walker suggest a concern for dignity and respect, preservation of the rights of descendents with regard to their ancestors, and conservation of the remains themselves when possible because of their importance in understanding a common past (Larsen and Walker 2005:114). They acknowledge that there are many problems associated with this, not least of which is that they are all dependent on culturally constructed values and standards, but they also believe that having the substantive information about what happened in the past that human remains provide is essential as a defense against the pernicious effect of historical revisionism (Larsen and Walker 2005:116). If ethics are a sensitive issue, the ability to refute racist theories and challenge political figures that propagate them is a necessity for the preservation of human equality and basic human rights. Unfortunately, as has been made abundantly clear in the course of this paper, bioarchaeology as a discipline is a construct itself and therefore subject to the theoretical vogue as is any other anthropological or social science. Postprocessual thought encourages self criticism and evaluation in conjunction with the evaluation of external data, but ethical considerations have been brought to the forefront of


bioarchaeology only because of the reaction the field happened to take against the previous paradigm. Ultimately, as becomes obvious through a chronological evaluation, researchers see what they wish to see in the archaeological record. At one time there was abundant and apparently scientific support for the inferiority of non-Caucasian species, which is hardly different from the basic assumptions behind the usage of the term mutilation instead of modification when referring to tattooing, tooth filing, and cranial manipulation (Lopez Olivares 1997; Havill, et al. 1997) It is also no different from current, empirical determinations that declining health and environmental degradation are in no way related to the decadence and demographic collapse of the ancient Maya (Wright 1997; Wright and Chew 1999; White 1997; Whittington and Reed 1997; Brenton and Paine 2000, Danforth 1994). At this point we see ourselves as individuals too clearly in the osteobiographies of the ancient Maya and our reaction is to use the tools we have accumulated to create comfortable data. The contemporary practice of bioarchaeology is dependent upon the training of the bioarchaeologist herself. While it has been helpful for anthropological archaeology to embrace postprocessual thought in order to conceptualize and analogize ancient people (the use of the singular here is significant), modern science vehemently rejects subjectivism in methodology. For this reason bioarchaeology has not grown as a discipline so much as it has splintered into subdisciplines and schools of thought. Buikstra attributes the current prominence of physical anthropological data within archaeological inquiry to a more theoretical orientation of contemporary archaeologists (Buikstra 1997:223).


When one speaks to the generation of contextually-bound questions within archaeological inquiry s/he refers to the dependence on and reflection of contemporary concerns in the practice archaeology. For example, following the Industrial Revolution when there was interest in establishing a complex set of social statuses appropriate to a city, differences in burial disposal forms were identified, meaning that archaeologists at the time looked to the past to validate and describe current practices (e.g. Morley 1920, cited in Buikstra 1997:223). Later, it became important to bolster arguments for a commoner-ruler status dichotomy, and priestly and other elite interments were emphasized (Thompson 1954, Buikstra 1997:223). Since the 1970s, the influence of processual archaeology, systems theory, and human ecology brought community health and the long-term impact of changing environmental and cultural factors, including diet and culturally mediated differential access to resources to the forefront of bioarchaeological inquiry (Wright and White 1996; Buikstra 1997:223). Though the new archaeology of the 1970s has been reevaluated, concerns for health and the environment persist in bioarchaeology following contemporary concerns for a changing world and the place of a scientific medical approach to human problems. Basic to the understanding of anthropological archaeology and bioarchaeology specifically is the acknowledgement of the fact that both are socially constructed sciences. In other words, in order to generate questions one looks to the concerns and interests of his or her own society and is confined by the scientific or cultural limitations of that society. For example, the way in which the human corpse is physically treated in American society becomes a tangible symbol for fears about the body (Emerick 2000:44). Regardless of religion or philosophical manifestations of death, there is a


normative feeling of disgust with the decay and mortality of the human body that is physically and psychologically identified with the corpse (Emerick 2000:34). Decades have passed during which time it has been not only a worthless endeavor but a sensually offensive enterprise to recover and manipulate the remains of human bodies. Postprocessual and postmodernist thought have shifted the focus of bioarchaeology inward and new concerns are being voiced, humanism is being reintroduced, and the past is being modeled on the analogies of the present. The corpse taboo of Western society has been deconstructed while the interest in the individual was being nurtured, and bioarchaeology finds itself searching for Janaab Pakal instead of a Maya king, the Maya elite class, or a typical and normative Maya skull (Arroyo 2006:xii). Humanism has encouraged an ethical dialogue while methods continue to change under the careful observation of a highly reflective new paradigm.


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