Maya osteobiographies of the Holmul region, Guatemala: curating life histories through bioarchaeology and stable isotope analysis
Cormier, Aviva Ann
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This study applies a life history approach to analyzing the identities of 52 Maya individuals who lived between 2000 BC and AD 900 in and around the city of Holmul, within the Petén region of Guatemala. Primary goals were to: (1) identify migrant and local individuals within the urban population; (2) determine 87Sr/86Sr isotope ratio signatures for the sites of Holmul, Cival, La Sufricaya, K’o, and Hamontun; (3) compile osteobiographies, personal life histories revealed through skeletal remains, of the individuals in the sample; and (4) evaluate evidence bearing on the identities of inhabitants of the Holmul region and how they were represented within economic, political, and cultural landscapes of the ancient Maya. This work demonstrates how bioarchaeologists can implement osteobiographical analyses to advance the understanding of multifaceted social identities and individual experiences of life and death. By integrating osteological study, stable isotope analysis, and consideration of mortuary context, material culture, inscriptions, and monumental architecture, the individual, rather than the population, becomes the focus. This aggregate approach allows for an in-depth consideration of human remains as former social beings with complex identities. The findings of this research suggest that most elite inhabitants in this ancient Maya city were local to the Holmul region, with the few outliers having originated from elsewhere in the Maya lowlands. This conclusion aligns with Maya elite ideologies of establishing lineages and reinforcing power through ancestor veneration. The local 87Sr/86Sr ratio signature of the Holmul region is comparable to other archaeological sites in the southern Maya lowlands. The osteobiographies reveal life histories, which personalize prior interpretations that considered the population only as an aggregate. This project also elucidates identities of sacrificed children, elite/royal women, and the local Holmul elite. Results of the study support the use of the isotopic analysis of human remains as an essential tool for approaching complex archaeological questions and evaluating hypotheses previously addressed primarily using architectural, iconographic, and artifactual evidence. Further, this study demonstrates the benefit of the isotopic analysis of dental enamel, especially in the Maya region and other environments characterized by difficult excavation conditions and the poor preservation of human remains.
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