4: Life, Death, & Cooperation

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Oaxaca, Mexico
© L. Nicholas
Barbacoa Pit Oven

Following our visit to Monte Albán last weekend, we were invited, after a morning in the lab on Sunday, to a fiesta celebrating the installation of new officers by Mitla’s communal land-holding authorities. Subsequent to the official business, the focus of the get-together was a feast that featured barbacoa de toro (beef barbecue). Oaxacan barbacoa bears little resemblance to the North American dish that bears the same name, and in fact, we much prefer the Mexican version.

In preparation for the feast, our hosts (and their local cooks) heated the butchered cow for hours in two huge metal cauldrons that were lowered into a subterranean earth oven (note above photo.) The meat steamed in a sauce of chiles, avocado leaves, and spices until tender, at which point the cauldrons were raised to the surface and large bowls were dispersed to the seated guests (see Photo #1 below.)

Traditionally, such bowls, filled with meat and sauce, are eaten without utensils by using torn sections of tortillas as spoons or ladles. Yet, our crew of foreigners was graciously afforded spoons to make our meal easier to eat. During the meal, a local trio banged out an array of ranchero tunes, while beers and mescal were freely passed out, so that all enjoyed a good time of fellowship and delicious food.

After an eventful weekend, we began to excavate below the final occupational surface of Terrace 276 and quickly discovered another ceramic offering that confirmed our earlier hypothesis that this residential complex was inhabited in the Early Postclassic period (ca. AD 900-1250). Left as an offering in a firebox associated with the penultimate surface, we found a brown-ware patojo (a shoe-shaped jar), a clear marker of that time (see Photo #2 below.)

But the excitement of this finding, directly relevant to a key goal of our study, was quickly eclipsed by the realization that what we thought might be a simple burial—covered by a few flat stones visible on a room floor—turned out to be the top of a subterranean tomb that appears to have been used (opened and re-opened numerous times) during the history of this house (see Photo #3 below.)

Although the tomb was modest in size and construction expertise (certainly compared to those we studied in 2003 and 2008 at El Palmillo), its excavation proved to be extremely challenging, requiring our attention for the rest of the week (see Photo #4 and #5 below.) What made this effort especially difficult was the extremely fragile condition of the bones and that the interred bodies were mostly disarticulated. Because the tomb was entered multiple times—the last times from the top (rather than through the door) by moving the collapsed roof stones—water, air, bacteria, and small animals may have entered the feature, contributing to the enhanced disintegration of harder parts of the body, and even the teeth.

Because some bone and artifacts were recovered on top of the tomb roof stones, we even suspect that the tomb was opened well after the last body was interred. In prehispanic Zapotec society, ritual contact between the living and the dead was an important vehicle for communicating with the supernatural; so burning incense or letting one’s blood above the spot where one’s honored ancestors were buried would be expected.

Burying deceased ancestors under the rooms and patios of the family home was standard prehispanic practice prior to the arrival of Europeans, Catholicism, and the terrible vectors of Old World (European, Asian, and African) communicable diseases. Still today, it’s evident that the strict separation between the living and the dead that is so apparent in Euro-American cultural practice is much less apparent here.

At every wedding and baptism, at which new lives or family members are welcomed, formal visits are made (as part of multi-day ceremonies) to the gravesites of deceased relatives, constructing ties and obligations between those who lived (live) in the past, present, and future. These visits are in addition to the more broadly known rites associated with the annual Day of the Dead gatherings at the graves of deceased family members.

The compacts between the living and the dead, the endurance of community land-holding traditions, and the importance of lengthy ritual events featuring the broad sharing of large quantities of food and drink are all part of strong cooperative elements that are central aspects or themes in Zapotec, if not more broadly Mesoamerican, society and culture. Of course, some of these traditional rituals and patterns of collective behavior have weakened with higher rates of migration and globalization, but strong elements of interpersonal interdependence remain in practice.

Furthermore, I would propose that strong elements of cooperation and socioeconomic interdependence have deep historical roots in the Valley of Oaxaca. I explicitly do not suggest this to infer that the local culture is “primitive,” stagnant, or unchanging, because it's most certainly none of those things, and I challenge such naïve ideas that run rampant in our society. But key ways of life and belief do tend to change slowly for any of us, and just as importantly, certain behaviors do tend to work better (more adaptively) in certain cultural and geographic settings than others.

In this region, where options for truly large-scale agronomic practices remain basically nil, and the rainfall gradients harbor around the lower limits required for adequate farming, it’s at least interesting that ritual sharing, marketplace exchange, flexibility in work/employment options, and other means of community and familial cooperation all tend to have deep and continuing histories here.

As evidenced in the images attached to last week’s and this week’s dispatches, cooperation is also an essential element of field archaeology. We who come from afar depend mightily on the skills, ideas, and work efforts of our Mitla crew, from our talented cook, Elena, to those who assist in excavating and recording in the field and in cleaning and analyzing in the lab. If I don't always name all the names or give everyone as much credit as they deserve, I apologize. But as Rod Stewart says, “Every picture tells a story.”

More soon,

© L. Nicholas
Serving the Barbacoa
© L. Nicholas
Excavating the Patojo
© L. Nicholas
Burial 37 Tomb
© L. Nicholas
Excavating the Tomb
© L. Nicholas
Excavating Ceramics