for National Geographic News
Some pre-Hispanic cultures in South America had elaborate celebrations at their cemeteries, complete with feasting and drinking grounds much like modern barbecue pits, according to a new archaeological study.
Excavations of 12th- and-13th-century burial mounds in the highlands of Brazil and Argentina revealed numerous earthen ovens. The finds suggest that the graves were also sites of regular festivals held to commemorate the death of the community's chief.
"After they buried an important person on the burial grounds, they feasted on meat that had been steamed in the earth ovens and drank maize beer," said archaeologist and study co-author José Iriarte.
Large rings of raised earth surround the mounds, with paths leading to their centers. The rings are composed of a series of the ovens, which were built up over generations.
"This monumental tradition spread across kilometers, from southern São Paulo state in Brazil to Río Grande del Sur in Argentina," added Iriarte, a professor of archaeology at the University of Exeter in the U.K.
The Jê people, who occupied the area Iriarte refers to during the 12th and 13th centuries, are recorded as having often consumed an alcoholic beverage of maize and honey.
"They carried out these festivities in a period of the year when pine nuts [eaten at celebrations] and maize were abundant," Iriarte added. "These were important resources to them."
Researchers found ceramic vessels such as bowls and small drinking cylinders that still contained residues of corn. Unidentifiable animal remains were also discovered.
The findings are published in the December issue of the journal Antiquity.
Archaeologists traditionally viewed the Jeê people as small, nomadic groups. But these discoveries prove that theory wrong, Iriarte said.
"This is an unexpected development in this part of southern America," he said.
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