Mortuary Pathways and Ritual Meanings Related to Maya Human Bone Deposits in Subterranean Contexts


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The Bioarchaeology of Space and Place


The ancient Maya regarded dry caves, crevices, rockshelters, and cenotes as sacred spaces and accesses to the earthen womb of the cosmos, thresholds through which the living communicated with natural powers. To test different hypotheses for context-specific or diverse mortuary use of Maya caves, cenotes, crevices, and rockshelters, we describe sex and age profiles, note the presence and types of cranial modifications, compare patterns of posthumous body manipulation, and reconstruct mortuary pathways in 35 human bone assemblages from the Maya realm, spanning the Preclassic to Colonial/Modern times, the latter represented by the Lacandon Maya in the forest of Chiapas. Combining anthropological, taphonomic, and contextual data sets, we test the hypothesis that different ritual practices and associated mortuary behaviors may be recognized by profiling burial populations from caves, crevices, rockshelters, and cenotes, and both wet and dry cave deposits. The documented scope of mortuary practices involving “hidden places” indicates that every single context went through its own history of use and reuse, regardless of the specific type of context. These results suggest the need for a reevaluation of the generalized roles of such sites as human depositories and for the application of more precise techniques in the recovery and subsequent analyses of human deposits directly related to access to the underworld.

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