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Skeleton Key

Clark Larsen

Bones of the Maya: Studies of Ancient Skeletons. Stephen L. Whittington and David M. Reed, eds. 290 pp. Smithsonian Institution Press, 1997. $49.95.

Since the publication of John Lloyd Stephens's Incidents of Travel in Central America in 1841, there has been an enormous scientific and popular interest in the ancient Maya. Archaeological field projects undertaken at such acclaimed sites as Copán, Uxmul, Tikal, Baking Pot, Palenque, Seibal, Altar de Sacrificios and Chichén Itzá have contributed to a burgeoning understanding of the social, political and economic patterns of native peoples living in this diverse and fascinating region prior to and after the arrival of Europeans. At these and other sites, archaeologists have unearthed many hundreds of skeletons, and some of these remains have been studied by physical anthropologists. Although a few early workers—most notably Earnest Albert Hooton of Harvard's Peabody Museum—articulated the importance of biological data derived from the study of these skeletons, the remains of the Maya have been largely ignored until recent years as a primary source of data for informing the study of past human habitation in the region.

This fine book presents 17 chapters dealing with diverse aspects of Maya bioarchaeology. Some 30 contributors address a range of issues that are germane to Maya prehistory and history, but two themes drive much of the discussion in this book. They are the quality of life as measured by osteological, paleopathological and chemical indicators of health and well-being—defects in dental enamel, caries, anemia, infection and stature—and the dietary reconstruction and nutritional ecology, which involve carbon and nitrogen stable isotopes. The former suggests that the health of many of these populations was compromised by overcrowding and malnutrition, and the latter indicates a dominance of maize in Mayan diets. The development of maize served as an economic foundation for the rise of chiefly and state societies in this and other areas of the New World.

Unfortunately for its consumers, maize is a flawed foodstuff because of its poor protein quality, high sugar content and iron-inhibiting properties. The health of many prehistoric and historic Mayans was poor, and they suffered from such maladies as treponematosis (as noted by Saul and Saul), iron-deficiency anemia (as noted by Whittington and Reed), systemic physiological disruption (as noted by Storey, Danforth), a high incidence of caries (as noted by White) and poor growth (cited by Márquez and del Angel). These studies provide only mixed support, however, for the model currently in vogue in the archaeological community that the demise of the Maya at the end of the Classic period in the 9th century a.d. was due in large part to ecological disruption and environmental disaster furthered by deforestation and intensive farming. To be sure, many centers saw political and social deterioration at this time, which may well have been brought about by environmental change, but the vitality of at least some groups continued. Moreover, as Wright and others reveal, there are no discernible changes in health during the period of the time that the so-called "collapse" was taking place.

The arrival of Spanish clergy and military in the 16th century resulted in dramatic social, cultural and biological changes in a number of settings. For example, Cohen et al. and Jacobi et al. posit a great alteration in Mayan ideology, as is shown by the shift in mortuary practices. Christian-style burial at Tipu in Middle America and elsewhere in New Spain—called La Florida—bespeaks the "success" of the conversion and indoctrination efforts of Spanish clergy.

On the other hand, the continuation of the widespread practice of dental mutilation, found in both the prehistoric period and into the period of contact, documented by Massey and Steele, and Lopéz Olivares, indicates the survival of earlier cultural behaviors, as noted by both Cohen et al. and Havill et al.

Skeletal remains also lend themselves to analysis of population history and structure. At Tipu, Jacobi et al. found limited evidence suggesting the presence of Maya family groupings buried in the floor of the mission church but no evidence of intermarriage with Spaniards. The inchoate analysis of DNA from nine individuals at Copán by Merriwether and colleagues identifies some potential directions in genetic research that may hold promise for the future, especially as they regard questions of population structure and relationships generated by other sources, such as Maya epigraphy. Another important topic addressed by bioarchaeologists and archaeologists in the Mayan area specifically and Latin America generally is the role of ritualized violence in society. Massey and Steele provide a vivid description of the cranial remains of 30 beheaded captives, including women, men and young children, associated with a monumental structure at Colha. The comparatively healthy nature of the group may indicate that they were drawn from the relatively well off.

In reading this book, one is struck by the large variability in the biological data sets, especially those representing dietary quality and health status. To be sure, most of the populations show evidence of poor health, but there is no clear indication of rampant stress for any period of time, such as the Late Classic, or across all regions inhabited by the Maya. Patterns certainly emerge at the regional level, but these studies underscore the priority of local processes in interpreting biological data.

As Webster discusses in the introduction and Buikstra reiterates in the conclusion to the volume, the breadth and scope of this book demonstrate the vital role that biological data gleaned from skeletal remains play in reconstructing and interpreting the history of the human condition. The research protocols in the Maya bioarchaeologies are applicable to many other areas of the world where study of available samples of osteological remains potentially provides insight into the human experience, especially where the skeletal record is derived from a context enriched by an abundance of archaeological and ethnohistorical data.—Clark Spencer Larsen, Anthropology, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

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