The 82nd Annual Meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists (2013)

Illness, Identity and the Mesoamerican Infant: A Regional Perspective


Department of Anthropology, University of Nevada, Las Vegas

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Bioarchaeologists have increasingly advocated placing health data in both cultural and regional contexts in order to more fully interpret the broader social experience of disease. One way to achieve this is to use a life-course approach. This methodology uses mortuary and skeletal data to examine the ways that illnesses accumulate on individuals, by age, in order to explore how persons of different ages and health states were perceived and treated in the past. Moreover, research may also focus on variation in health/treatment of individuals within a particular age category. For example, are infants variably treated after death? Here we apply a life course approach to sites in Mesoamerica where a regional comparison of infant burial practices has yet to be synthesized.

Mortuary treatment and paleopathology data are used to test the recent argument, based on archaeological evidence, that the ill and young (<1 year of age) were viewed as liminal persons across ancient Mesoamerica. Our results appear to support this hypothesis. For example, data from Postclassic/historic Maya and Loma San Gabriel Tepehuan, sites demonstrate high rates of scurvy (58% and 42% respectively) and other bony indicators of ill-health such as periosteal reactions and endocranial lesions, in infants buried in special contexts. Supporting data from other sites in this region will also be discussed. This research highlights the social consequences disease had for particular age groups (such as infants) and provides a more nuanced perspective of the social roles the ill played in prehistory.

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