The bioarchaeology of newly discovered burial caves in the Sierra Tarahumara (Mexico)

Cameron v Walker
Dept. of Anthropology, University of Oregon
July, 2006


The dissertation goal was to expand our knowledge of northwest Mexican cultural history. This was undertaken with analyses of osteological and archaeological data from burial caves in the Pima and Tarahumara regions of Sonora and Chihuahua, Mexico. Unfortunately, the bioarchaeology of the Sierra Tarahumara Mountains of northwest Mexico has been overlooked by most anthropologists. This is due to the absence of monumental architecture and because many sites are relatively inaccessible.
The dissertation research evaluated the prehistoric cultural interactions between indigenous groups from the Sierra Tarahumara Mountains and nearby populations. The previously uninvestigated burial caves were placed in a cultural interpretive context with craniometric data and radiocarbon dates. The prehistoric diet was examined through stable isotope analyses.
The data collected for this study implied cultural continuity in the Sierra Tarahumara Mountains during the late prehistoric period, A.D. 900-1300. The craniometric data derived from individuals within the burial caves show homogeneity, as do artifacts and mortuary practices. Comparative craniometric data collected from the Mexican site of Paquimé and the prehistoric Pueblos of Tijeras and Jemez were statistically compared with the Sierra Tarahumara to estimate intra-group biological distance. The Pueblo populations were found to resemble one another, and were more closely related to Paquimé than either are to the Sierra Tarahumara population. Paquimé shares slightly less biological affinity with the Sierra Tarahumara population than with the Pueblos, despite closer geographic proximity. I argue that the Sierra Tarahumara population is a geographical and genetic isolate, based on agreement in cultural practices, territory, and diet between modern ethnographic studies of the Tarahumara people and the archaeological record. This suggests that although outside populations have been in the Sierra Tarahumara since 1560, the Tarahumara people have maintained their cultural integrity.
In addition, artifact analysis and stable isotope evidence generally uphold the hypothesis that the Sierra Tarahumara likely served as a corridor through which maize, ceramics, and marine shell were traded. The region therefore has unrealized potential for addressing broader questions about the cultural and biological history of the prehistoric Southwest and its interactions with ancient Mesoamerica.