The body speaks
June 08, 2011
By Elton Alisson
Agência FAPESP – The preparation of bodies in funeral rites, utilizing bones as symbols to express beliefs about death, is not restricted solely to people who inhabited the Andes region 10,000 years ago during the early Holocene. The practice was also utilized in this same period by people located in the continent’s so-called lowlands, including Brazil, according to studies conducted by the archaeologist André Menezes Strauss, who is completing a doctorate at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany.
The discoveries were presented at the annual meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropology, held from April 12 – 16 in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
During his master’s research conducted at Universidade de São Paulo’s (USP) Biosciences Institute (IB) through the support of a FAPESP fellowship, Strauss participated in the exhumation of 26 human skeletons buried in the Lapa do Santo archaeological site in Minas Gerais. The site has been excavated over the last ten years under the auspices of the Thematic Project “Origins and microevolution of man in America: a paleoanthropological approach,” financed by FAPESP and coordinated by IB professor, Walter Neves.
In analyzing human skeletons dating back 8,500 years, Strauss realized that the bones showed signs of cuts made by stone instruments, had been exposed to fire or had received an application of ochre paint. Furthemore, some skeletons had amputated limbs and had been buried in a disjointed manner along with the remains of several individuals, for example.
Intrigued with the discovery, Strauss and Pedro José Tótora da Glória, a doctoral candidate for physical anthropology at Ohio State University, reviewed bone collections that had been excavated since the beginning of the 19th century at other archaeological sites in the Lagoa Santa region, where the Lapa do Santo grotto is located. The researchers found that the bones bore the same characteristics of those found in Lapa do Santo.
“We identified a certain degree of sophistication in the funeral rites of this group, which were very diversified, had peculiar characteristics and strong emphasis on preparation of the body,” Strauss told Agência FAPESP.
In addition to having cut and marked bones, the skeletons were organized and displayed in tombs according to very specific rules. The skull of an adult, for example, was buried with the remains of a child’s skeleton, while the children’s skulls were buried with the bones of mature individuals.
In other cases, the teeth of an individual were removed to adorn the mortal remains of another. “They expressed dichotomous principles that were likely part of their cosmology through the concreteness of the bones,” analyzes Strauss.
According to the researcher, no one expected the funeral rites of South America’s first inhabitants to be as elaborate as the studies revealed.
This is because in anthropology there was an idea that because of the nomadic nature of prehistoric hunter-gatherers, they would not expend the time and energy to bury their dead. But the discovery of Chile’s Chinchorro mummies in the early 1970s and the new findings in Lapa do Santo are collectively debunking this idea.
“Like the Lagoa do Santo groups, the Chinchorros were also hunter-gatherers. No one expected to find that groups living more than 8,000 years on the Andean coast had mummified their dead or that groups in Lagoa Santa would have elaborate funeral rites,” said Strauss.
Based on these discoveries, according to the scientist, it will be possible to establish a new regional scenario for funeral rites in South America during the early Holocene, characterized not by the simplicity of burials, as previously imagined, but by the sophistication of funeral rites as proven by the preparation of the body by groups that inhabited Lagoa do Santo.
“Now, no one can say that during the early Holocene, the practice of preparing bodies was not limited to the Andes, but rather it was spread throughout a good portion of South America, including lowlands,” he affirmed.
At the Max Planck Institute, Strauss studies human evolution and, in parallel to his doctoral research, continues investigating South American funerary practices.
In Europe, the scientist intends to visit the collections excavated by the Danish naturalist Peter Lund (1801-1880) in Lagoa Santa in an attempt to uncover evidence that they presented the same characteristics of bones recently excavated at the Minas Gerais archaeological site and which may not have been noticed by archaeologists that worked in Lapa do Santo. Lund’s collections are in the Denmark’s Natural History museum. “We were very lucky because the Lagoa Santa region has hundreds of caves that were excavated by archaeological teams. Lapa do Santo was a virgin archaeological site,” explains Straus.
The archaeologists that previously excavated the Minas Gerais region may not have paid attention to the fact that the bones had marks on them because they were focused on other research, like the coexistence of man with the mega-fauna and cranial morphology. Furthermore, it was not possible to identify these characteristics in skeletons with the technology and methods available at the time.
“We took more than two weeks to exhume every human tomb and we only excavated approximately 15% of the Lapa do Santo site. The idea is to make the material available to be excavated in the future with new techniques,” says Strauss.
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