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Thighbones Were Scepters for Ancient Zapotec Men?

Charles Q. Choi
for National Geographic News
July 15, 2009
 
For men of the ancient Zapotec civilization, ancestral thighbones may have been carried as status symbols.

Based on centuries-old stone carvings in southern Mexico, archaeologists had long suspected that Zapotec men brandished human femurs.

"The thought was that the femurs are those of the ancestors of the rulers, serving like staffs of office or symbols of legitimacy," explained archaeologist Gary Feinman of the Field Museum in Chicago.

Now grave excavations have confirmed the practice, according to a new study. What's more, it seems that commoners got a leg up too.

Flourishing from about 500 B.C. to A.D. 1000 in the Valley of Oaxaca, the Zapotec were contemporaries of the ancient Maya and Aztec. (See "Zapotec Digs in Mexico Show Clues to Rise and Fall.")

Prior excavations had revealed a Zapotec tomb where nine femurs were missing. But the skeletons were a bit of a jumble, so it wasn't clear whether the bones had been taken or had simply gone missing.

Theory No Longer Out on a Limb

The Zapotec often kept their dead relatives close to home—sometimes even at home.

At a dig earlier this year at a fortress near the ancient town of San Pablo Villa de Mitla (map), Feinman and colleagues discovered an adobe-lined storage pit underneath an excavated house.

Inside was an adult male skeleton that was virtually intact, save for a missing right femur.

"This find is fantastic—it corroborates what was inferred before," said archaeologist Javier Urcid of Brandeis University, who did not participate in the new study.

Populist Power Symbol?

There are signs that the circa-A.D. 500 pit had been opened and then resealed about 25 to 100 years after the initial burial. Since the house appears to have been occupied continuously during this time, whoever reopened the pit was probably a relative, the researchers suggest.

"I believe removal of the femur from a male was one way the ancient Zapotec asserted dynastic continuity," said archaeologist Joyce Marcus at the University of Michigan, who did not participate in this study.

"It seems likely that each firstborn son was expected to brandish the femur of his father. The removal and curation of a femur signified that an unbroken line of descent extended from the founder to his descendants."

The newfound burial was simple and modest, suggesting the buried man was not an elite, although he might have been the head of a household, Feinman suggested.

"It raises the question as to whether femurs were used as a broader symbol of legitimacy that anyone with even a little bit of power held onto."
 

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