for National Geographic News
An ancient burial site in Mexico contains evidence that Mixtec Indians conducted funerary rituals involving cremation as far back as 3,000 years ago.
The find represents the earliest known hints that Mixtecs used this burial practice, which was later reserved for Mixtec kings and Aztec emperors, according to researchers who excavated the site.
Evidence from the site also suggests that a class of elite leaders emerged among the Mixtecs as early as 1100 B.C.
(Related news: "Aztec Pyramid, Elite Graves Unearthed in Mexico City" [January 4, 2008].)
In addition, the burials hold clues that dogs were an important part of the diet of Mixtec elite.
"The Mixtec area is one area where civilization emerged," said lead study author William Duncan, an anthropologist at St. John Fisher College in Rochester, New York. "This [burial ceremony] is one part of that emergence."
Duncan and colleagues describe their work in this week's online edition of the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Souls Go Up in Smoke
The team excavated two graves in the ancient Mixtec village of Tayata, which is in the state of Oaxaca along Mexico's southern Pacific coast.
The corpses were placed into the graves, burned, and then buried near a dwelling that was probably their home.
One set of remains is thought to belong to a young woman who was between 18 and 25 years old.
The team was unable to determine the gender of the other person, but they think that this individual could have been between 15 and 25 years old.
Co-author Heather Lapham, a zooarchaeologist at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, said the team also found bones of dogs, deer, and fish—indications that the residents ate well and thus probably were of a higher social status.
In fact, Lapham said, the excavation revealed that dogs were "a major component of their diet."
According to co-author Andrew Balkansky, also of Southern Illinois, the Mixtecs may have believed that ritual cremation of bodies would release the souls of the deceased.
"The idea was that, basically, you'd have someone's soul ascend to the heavens in the smoke," Balkansky said.
The cremation also could have been part of the ritual belief that elite dead are transformed into gods, he said.
"Now they are one step removed from the gods themselves," Balkansky said. "This [cremation] would help them along to the next transition of their existence."
Such cremation ceremonies were not conducted at other Mixtec grave sites from around the same time—another indication that the people buried in the Tayata graves were considered elite.
The scientists could not determine the cause of death of the two young people, lead author Duncan said, but they probably were not killed as part a sacrificial ritual.
"There's no evidence of trauma on the skeletons," he said. "It could have been a host of things [that caused their deaths]."
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