One Grave Does Not Equal One Person: Hunter-gatherer Graves in Argentina

Written by: Katy Meyers Emery

Primary Source: Bone’s Don’t Lie

There seems to be an assumption that one grave will only hold one individual. Why we assume this is kind of strange given that even today we don’t always bury one individual per grave. Just looking at the news there was a burial of two brothers together in one coffin, and often husbands and wives will be buried one coffin on top of the other (or something like that, urns next to one another, etc). Think about the ‘Frankenstein’ burial found in Scotland: it appeared to be one single individual, but turned out that bones belonged to different people and were put together in one grave (See the full article here).

A new article by Flensborg, Martinez and Bayala (2014) examines bundled remains from a cemetery in Argentina that is over 500 years old (This was previously briefly examined by Martinez- see that writeup here). During this period, the region was experiencing major changes and the reorganization of cultural systems due to a diverse range of reasons including population growth, inter-ethnic contact, growth of trade and social networks, territoriality and loss of space. As groups become competitive for space, there is increased use of formal cemeteries and disposal areas as a way to mark one’s territory. What better way to say that you control the land then to bury your ancestors on it- definitive proof that you have historical control over the area. In order to better understand how this change occurred and how it affected the population- we need to study the remains of those people affected by it. Flensborg, Martinez and Bayala (2014) propose to assess such a population, and aid in our interpretation of this period.

The Paso Alsina 1 site is located in the lower basin of the Colorado River in Argentina. Hunter-gatherer groups had been living in this area since 3000 BCE. The Paso Alsina 1 site contains an inhumation cemetery that is completely made up of secondary burials. There were ten secondary burials placed within close proximity to one another, arranged in perpendicular or parallel lines. Most date around 1500 CE. A unique feature of the site is that all the bones have been painted with a red pigment. In addition to this, many of the bones have cut-marks related to defleshing, scraping and cutting. Based on this evidence, they argue that likely these individuals died within a few years of one another, and were buried in a cemetery. Years later after all had died, the remains were taken out of the graves, any remaining flesh was removed from the bodies, the bones were painted with pigment, and they were bundled up and reburied. It is highly likely that this behavior is a way of reinforcing community identity and clearly defining territory.

Ten burials with 130 individuals mixed into them!

Ten burials with 130 individuals mixed into them! Flensborg, Martinez and Bayala (2014)

The bundles however don’t necessarily contain the remains of only one individual. When examined closely, bundles were a mix of bones from different ages and of different sexes. In order to identify this population, they needed to determine how many individuals were in this group, how old each of them was, and what was their sex. Each bone was assessed individually. In total, the site includes 3526 bone elements and 887 teeth. Based on the bones, while there were only ten burials, the bones come from a minimum of 130 individuals! (Previously Martinez 2012 had thought there were only around 54). There are 51 sub-adults and 79 adults found. Only 20 were identified as female and 27 as male- the rest were either unidentified or too young. Regardless of age or sex, all bones were treated the same, supporting the conclusion that this was meant to support a communal identity.

By doing careful analysis of sex, age, trauma and paleopathology of the individual bones, despite their being mixed together, Flensborg, Martinez and Bayala (2014) are able to create a fairly complete model of the population in order to better understand mortality of these hunter-gatherers. These were not specific individuals selected for a unique burial, the dead found in the communal bundles represent a normal population curve. While many didn’t experience trauma, there was a high frequency of nutritional deficiencies and evidence of stress- which is expected for this type of group.

The study itself is very interesting because they focus on the methods used to understand a population when their bones are mixed together. However, we don’t learn as much about the population as I was hoping, and I would love to learn more about the funerary processes. The fact they they were exhumed, defleshed, painted with pigment, and then reburied in a number of graves is quite fascinating. I would love to see an expansion of this part of the article!

Works Cited

ResearchBlogging.orgFlensborg, Martinez, & Bayala (2014). Mortality Profiles of Hunter-Gatherer
Societies: A Case Study from the Eastern Pampa–Patagonia Transition (Argentina) During the Final Late Holocene International Journal of Osteoarchaeology

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Katy Meyers Emery
Katy is currently a graduate student studying mortuary archaeology at Michigan State University. Her academic interests are in mortuary and bioarchaeology, with a specific interest in connecting the physical remains to the mortuary context. Along with this, she is also interested in Digital Humanities, and the integration of technology into academia, as well as public archaeology and outreach.
Katy Meyers Emery

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