Researchers study pre-Hispanic funerary practices in north-western Argentina

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For more than fifteen years, a research team from CONICET, led by María Cristina Scattolin, has been carrying out excavation and analysis work in the locality of Valle del Cajón, Catamarca, in order to learn about burial methods and death ceremonies in graves that are up to six thousand years old.

Researchers study pre-Hispanic funerary practices in north-western Argentina
Burial of an adult male in a crouched position, legs bent against the chest, hands
underneath; about 2000 years before the present [Credit: Dr Leticia Cortés]

In northwestern Argentina, before the arrival of the Spaniards, the practices and relationship with death were quite different from what is customary today on the basis of the Judeo-Christian model. This is why the specialists seek to understand the lifestyles of these populations and study the cultural variation of the past in the region.

“When one compares these practices with ours, they may seem strange. So, knowing these customs, we can reconstruct the cultural practices of the past and put into perspective our own traditions, which are part of a cultural construction,” said Dr Leticia Cortés, a researcher at the Institute of Cultures (IDECU- CONICET-UBA) and a specialist in the subject.




“We recorded twelve burials in total, of which the majority were fortuitous finds, that is to say, the result of the inhabitants – who already know us – finding remains and informing us so that we can carry out the archaeological rescue. It usually happens after the rainy season, in summer, when the bones are ‘uncovered’ and reach the surface,” Cortés explained to Agencia CTyS-UNLaM.

According to the specialist, the recorded burials have different chronologies, from 6,000 years BP (before the present) to about 1,300 BP. “There was a great variability in the burial methods, in individual or collective graves, and the posture of the bodies also varies: there are some that are ‘hyperflexed’, like squatting, with the shoulders touching the knees, some are extended and others are disarticulated and mixed”.

Researchers study pre-Hispanic funerary practices in north-western Argentina
A. Mass grave, 14 people, adults and children of different ages and both sexes.
B. Diagram drawn of the tomb 
[Credit: Dr Leticia Cortés]

In addition, the expert pointed out that “people often lived with their dead on a daily basis, burying them in the same courtyard where they cooked, made pots or carved stones. It is interesting to see the different conceptions they had about life and death, different from today in our own culture, where cemeteries are isolated places, often surrounded by high walls that obstruct the view of the gravestones”.

“One of the tombs became popular because a copper mask was found there, which is the oldest manufactured copper object in the Andes. It is 3,000 years old and was found in the locality of La Quebrada, in the Cajón Valley”, said the researcher as one of the particularities of the area of work.




This anthropomorphic mask, that is, in the shape of a human face, was found in a collective burial of at least 14 people, including adults of both sexes and children, whose remains were completely disarticulated and mixed in a gravesite that had only one wall of flat stones arranged on one side.

Along the same lines, the researcher asserted that, through ancient DNA analysis carried out by Dr. María Laura Parolín (CENPAT-CONICET), they were able to corroborate that two of the individuals found share genetic material. “This could prove that they were buried in a community of people, who may have been related to each other,” they said.

Researchers study pre-Hispanic funerary practices in north-western Argentina
A. Anthropomorphic mask, 3000 years old, the oldest intentionally manufactured
copper object in the Andes. B. Map
 [Credit: Dr Leticia Cortés]

On the other hand, since ancient times, the time of hunter-gatherer peoples, there is evidence that the populations of different regions of northwestern Argentina moved the bodies of their deceased through their movements across the landscape. The handling of bodies and the reopening of tombs are long-standing traditions in this region, and this was one of the practices that the Spanish tried to eradicate. For example, the Incas in Peru had the custom of removing the bodies of ancestors and, at certain times, showing them to the community as a ritual.

Finally, Cortés said that she is currently studying body ornaments, and although the burials found in the Cajón Valley so far are generally devoid of objects, they have found necklaces and pendants that would be associated with the deceased, as non-transferable objects that are buried with the body and remain there.

Source: Agencia CTyS-UNLaM [trsl. TANN; Original article published February 18, 2021]

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