1,400-year-old remains of elite young woman discovered in Tingambato, Michoacán analysed

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Since the discovery of Tomb II in the Tingambato Archaeological Zone in Michoacán in 2011 by researchers from the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH), where the skeletal remains of a woman and more than 19,000 associated objects were found, the study of these elements is revealing aspects of this member of the local elite.

1,400-year-old remains of elite young woman discovered in Tingambato, Michoacán analysed
Intentional cultural modifications to the skull and teeth of the young woman
found in Tomb II at Tingambato [Credit: PAPACSUM-ADV Studies]

The analysis of such materials began in 2016, when the researcher of the INAH Michoacán Centre, archaeologist José Luis Punzo Díaz, resumed the exploration of the site as part of the Project Archaeology and Landscape of the Central-Southern Area of Michoacán, promoted by the federal Ministry of Culture, who indicates that the results reveal the significance of this burial and the personage buried, and place it as one of the most important in the archaeology of western Mexico, particularly in Michoacán.  




The skeletal remains of the woman were found inside a burial chamber built five metres deep, with strong stone walls and a vaulted ceiling of slabs in a spiral pattern, where she was buried with a rich assemblage of grave goods made up of 19,428 shell and lapidary objects.

According to Alejandro Valdés Herrera, a member of the research project, osteological and ancient DNA analysis confirmed that the skeletal remains deposited in Tomb II belonged to a young woman between 16 and 19 years old. According to the radiocarbon collagen analysis carried out at the Accelerator Mass Spectrometry Laboratory of the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), which coincides with the period of greatest growth at Tingambato, from 550 to 850 AD, the remains date back to around 630 AD.

1,400-year-old remains of elite young woman discovered in Tingambato, Michoacán analysed
Analysis of the skeletal remains remains with computerized axial
tomography [Credit: Alfonso Gastelum Strozzi/INAH]

He explains that, due to the fragmentation and poor preservation conditions of the skull, a careful reconstruction was carried out at the Physical Anthropology Laboratory of the INAH-Michoacán Centre, under the direction of anthropologist Carlos Karam Tapia, where it was discovered that it showed intentional cephalic deformation of the erect tabular type, as well as dental modification work.

“Although these modifications were common at the time, they are associated with certain groups in society, which leads us to believe that he was part of the local elite. On the other hand, when we analysed her teeth, we observed that the modifications were not worn or showed evidence of use, so they could have been made at a time close to her death,” explains Valdés Herrera.

Through the studies, various palaeopathologies were also determined, which indicate that she had suffered periods of illness such as fever and a slight degree of malnutrition, although they do not appear to be the cause of death, which is still unknown.

1,400-year-old remains of elite young woman discovered in Tingambato, Michoacán analysed
Lapidary from the grave goods, identified by archaeometric analysis as mostly Amazonite,
[Credit: PAPACSUM-ADV Studies]

On analysing the mass of materials that formed concentrations in certain areas of her remains, placed on a bed of flagstones, it was observed that this was a funerary assemblage, which, due to the quantity and quality of the objects, as well as their temporality and their association with a single person, is considered one of the most important found in western Mexico.




The analysis of the 18,601 items made from seashells revealed that most of the beads and earrings are of the Spondylus princeps species, which comes from the Pacific and is peculiar for its orange colour, which was highly appreciated by ancient cultures. Of these, 3,38 thousand snails that were strung together stand out for their quantity.

The pectoral that she wore, which belonged to the tradition of the “enconchada” clothing, was complemented with 10 rings also made of shell, one on each finger, and on her ankles there were cylindrical beads of the Tripsycha tripsycha species, as well as bells made from marine snails.

1,400-year-old remains of elite young woman discovered in Tingambato, Michoacán analysed
Digital reconstruction of the grave goods, Tomb II of Tingambato
[Credit: PAPACSUM-ADV Studies model]

Near the skull, a diadem of shell plates was found, as well as a composite earflare, disc-shaped with a central cylindrical bead – similar to those used in the Maya area, although in this case made of shell and not jade – as well as more than two thousand small snails of the genus Olivella, which are believed to have been inserted directly into the young woman’s hair, as they were not found on the skull but scattered around it.

In addition, five atlatl or spear-throwers were found surrounding the body of the young woman, four of them with shell handles and one more made of green stone; these are luxury versions of this weapon and show the warrior character of this woman.

The mineral identification studies, carried out by means of Raman spectroscopy techniques, were supported by the Centro de Investigaciones en Óptica, and by Drs. Antonio Meneses Nava and Jasinto Robles Camacho, from the Centro INAH Michoacán.

1,400-year-old remains of elite young woman discovered in Tingambato, Michoacán analysed
Digital reconstruction of the burial in Tomb II of Tingambato
[Credit: PAPACSUM-ADV Studies model]

With respect the 827 lapidary elements, the specialists pointed out that most of the green stone beads correspond to a mineral called amazonite, whose origin is not yet determined, but important veins are known in the region now occupied by Chihuahua; as well as turquoise, to a lesser extent, but of great importance, which probably came from what is now the southwest of the United States.




The Sub-Directorate of Laboratories and Academic Support of INAH, together with Dr. Emiliano Melgar Tísoc, also carried out analyses of manufacturing traces, which determined that the elaboration of the majority of the shell and lapidary objects presented different processes, indicating that they were made in different workshops.

Archaeologist José Luis Punzo Díaz concludes that Tingambato was a particularly privileged site due to its location, at the entrance to Tierra Caliente and the Michoacán mountain range, which arose in the year 0 and had a constant occupation until 900 AD.

Source: INAH [trsl. TANN; May 30, 2021]

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