Wednesday, December 3, 2008


Prehispanic Maya funeral rites include the burying of the deceased in house or shrine floors or other architectural settings, typically with offerings (e.g., McAnany, 1995). Human remains showing “hasty disposal,” and/or consisting of disarticulated remains might comprise those “. . . who were perhaps regarded as nonpersons” (Geller, 2004:422), such as children, slaves – or, as we argue, witches. Geller (2004:301–308), in her work comparing burial patterns and skeletal remains from several sites and contexts in northwestern Belize, discusses partial remains as possibly indicating veneration, mutilation, or remembrance. She also notes the difficulty of distinguishing between them. Context, however, might provide useful clues (see Scott and Brady, 2005; Tiesler, and Medina and Sánchez in this volume; Moyes and Gibbs, 2000).

Human remains in nonfunerary or nonburial contexts, such as partial remains on or underneath architectural floors, might reflect the remains of sacrificial victims, while similarly placed remains on surfaces in caves might reflect the disposal of witches. It has largely been assumed that ritual violence only involves the sacrifice of innocent victims (see Tiesler in this volume). Witch killings, however, need to be considered as a possible explanation for some violent deaths, or even as a type of sacrifice – specifically of a noninnocent person, or one who is perceived as being malevolent by his or her peers. The challenge is to distinguish one from the other; in such cases context becomes just as critical as evidence of violence, especially since the latter occurs to both the innocent and “guilty.” Several types of violent deaths and associated physical evidence; taking this evidence into account, as well as the context of remains, is critical to distinguish sacrificial victims from possible killed witches. And it is important to keep in mind that not all forms of ritual violence leave telling evidence; “strangulation, disembowelment, or imprisonment in a cave leave little or no signatures” (Scott and Brady, 2005:276).

The majority of remains found in the caves listed are from surface contexts (55%, n = 17) rather than formal burials. The remaining contexts include surface and burials (10%, n = 3), urns or burials (26%, n = 8), and unknown contexts (10%, n = 3). It is necessary to note that not all of the caves listed in Table 3.2 have been excavated, and thus the actual number of burials is unknown. We are not suggesting that all surface remains represent sacrificial victims and/or witches; however, we are suggesting a re-evaluation of human remains recovered from surface contexts.

Unfortunately, in most cases the sex of the individuals is unknown or not recorded. Of the few surface remains identified, 15 are male and 16 are female; subadults were noted in 37 cases, as were 49 adults. For the sake of comparison, of the identified buried remains, there are 10 females, 12 males, 18 subadults, and 44 adults. Due to the limited information, it is not possible to present firm conclusions. However, the human remains found in caves on surfaces begs the question of why the Maya deposited people (or killed them) in such dangerous places as caves, whether they be ancestors, sacrificial victims, or witches. This behavior clearly is prevalent through space (Guatemala, Mexico, and Belize) and time (Preclassic through Postclassic periods). More research on remains in caves is needed to conduct a proper comparison with residential or architectural burials. Burials in structures typically represent ancestor veneration (McAnany, 1995) – what does this fact signify regarding the role of the deposition of the dead in caves?

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