A comparative analysis of burial patterning: The Preclassic Maya sites of Chiapa de Corzo, Kaminaljuyu, Tikal, and Colha

Lauri McInnis Thompson
Dept. of Anthropology, University of Texas at Austin
July, 2005


Understanding cultures of the past is an endeavor that can be approached from many directions, with one of the most common paths being archaeology's traditional focus on the material remains of civilizations. It is, however, the case that many of the ruins and monuments that provide such obvious evidence of these cultures also serve as the final resting places for their creators. Analyses of ancient peoples and their inhumation (burial) practices can yield valuable information about their behavior and life ways as well as the culture's social and demographic structure. William Coe once stated, with regard to the human skeletal remains of Piedras Negras, that "Observations and measurements, when feasible, have been given in the hope that someday there will be sufficient data for a revealing synthesis of Maya skeletal remains" (Coe 1959:121). Today, 46 years later, that synthesis does not yet exist. Most previous osteological research has consisted of simple reports on metric analysis, aging, sexing, pathology, and stature of remains from a single locale. This dissertation attempts an answer to William Coe's call for synthesis by undertaking a systematic osteological study of four major sites across the Maya area: the highland Maya site of Kaminaljuyu, Guatemala, the lowland Maya sites of Tikal, Guatemala and Colha, Belize, and Chiapa de Corzo in Mexico (Figure 1). Descriptions of osteological collections and related materials have been used to construct a composite database of all currently reported burials and/or documented human skeletal remains from the Preclassic period of these sites. This database provides a basis for a comparative look at the empirical skeletal data and social issues, including the construction of gender roles. The comparison on both micro and macro levels: the individual sites and the larger areas of association including relationships between the represented regions of the Maya Highlands, the Maya Lowlands, and Chiapas allows for plausible hypotheses regarding the Preclassic Maya from the apparent trends and the noticeable variations in the data.