Thursday, January 27, 2011

An Ancient Society in Central Mexico

This February, the book entitled Cañada de la Virgen: A Refuge of the Forefathers will be launched in San Miguel de Allende. As the translator of this publication, I was fascinated to learn about an ancient culture that inhabited the central region of Mexico.

A wealth of information was brought to light by analyzing the bones of the site—a collection made up of nineteen human skeletons, including those of males and females, adults and infants, along with numerous isolated bones. What is interesting about studying bone remains is that we can learn about the physical aspects, such as age, sex, and height of the individuals, and about their day-to-day activities, given that human movement leaves traces on the bones. We can also discover their basic diet and, for those of greater social status, about delicacies brought in from afar.

The experts who examined these tombs looked at age, gender, ailments, diet, and physical traits. Dehmian Barrales assembled a three-dimensional reconstruction of El jerarca, which represents an excellent example of how the combination of various scientific disciplines can help us learn about people who lived many years ago: their physical traits, customs, and funerary rites, among other things. Within this discussion, we will also present the results of efforts conducted to determine the age of Burials 13 and 5, El jerarca and La niña guerrera, respectively.

In order to arrive at the kinds of interpretations presented here, archaeologists conduct extensive laboratory tests. Bones and other material evidence from the archaeological record can be used to answer many questions we have about these cultures. Samples of objects are extracted and sent to physics and chemistry labs, archaeometry labs, forensics and radiocarbon-dating labs, in order to calculate when these people lived or to analyze specific chemical compounds. For example, nitrogen is a good indicator of diet; carbon is a chronological marker; and collagen is another medium for measuring age.

Zepeda García Moreno, Gabriela. Cañada de la Virgen: Refugio de los muertos y los ancestros. Trans. Paige Mitchell. Guanajuato, Mexico: INAH, 2011.