National Geographic News

John Roach

for National Geographic News

Published March 9, 2010

According to the first known evidence of "double burials," ancient people in what is now Mexico routinely dug up decomposing bodies and took off their arms, legs, and heads, then reburied the bodies, new research shows.

Indigenous peoples of the Cape Region of Baja California Sur (see map) practiced these double burials for about 4,500 years, from about 300 B.C. to the 16th-century A.D, when Europeans first arrived in the region, anthropologists say.

To the native groups, death was "a motionless, painful state, from which the living could free" the dead by sectioning the limbs, physical anthropologist Alfonso Rosales-Lopez said in an email translated from Spanish."

(See pictures of facedown burials from around the world.)

The double-burial practice, he added, is consistent with beliefs in other cultures around the world that death isn't the end of life but rather a passing from one state to another.

Since 1991 Rosales-Lopez has examined more than a hundred of the double burials along the southern coast of Baja California and is currently working on a paper describing the practice.

Double-Burial Corpses Torn Limb From Limb

Immediately after death, candidates for double burial were shrouded in animal skins and bound tightly in the fetal position with cords made from agave plants, the same succulents used in tequila production. Each corpse was then placed in an individual shallow grave lined with seashells, charcoal, and soil.

"It would appear this would end the funeral, but the abundance of sectioned remains clearly shows this is not the case—rather, it was only the first part," said Rosalez-Lopez, of Mexico's National Institute of Anthropology and History.

About six to eight months after a first burial, a body would be exhumed. At this point, the corpse would have decomposed enough that the limbs and head could be easily broken off, he noted.

Once separated, the dismembered parts were placed near the body and reburied.

Near the burial sites, Rosalez-Lopez and colleagues also found stone tools—such as projectile heads, knives, and fishing harpoons—that would have been used to kill and prepare food. Food remains including shells of mollusks, seeds, and plants were also discovered.

(Related: "Baja California Rock Art Dated to 7,500 Years Ago.")

Reasons for Double Burials Still Speculative

Double burials appear unique to the Cape Region, said Don Laylander, senior archaeologist with the archaeological consulting firm ASM Affiliates and co-editor of The Prehistory of Baja California: Advances in the Archaeology of the Forgotten Peninsula.

Rosales-Lopez's research also offers some new insight into the culture of Mexico's ancient native peoples, Laylander said.

For instance, the double burials and the shells and bones found at the sites certainly point to a culture that emphasized ceremony and were seminomadic, Laylander, who was not involved in the research, noted via email.

That's because the artifacts suggests the people did not abandon their settlements forever—they had an obligation to revisit and protect their dead, project leader Rosalez-Lopez said.

Not much more is known about the culture, Laylander said. The Cape Region groups became culturally extinct more than two centuries ago, he added, and there are few modern ethnographic accounts of them.

As for Rosales-Lopez's interpretations as to why the bodies were torn apart, Laylander said those conclusions are only "speculation."


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