Thursday, September 22, 2016

Caring for the Disabled in Hohokam Arizona

Back in 2006, archaeologists excavated a large cemetery in downtown Tempe, Arizona. These people lived in the village that was Tempe's predecessor, occupied between 700 and 1500 CE. The excavators recently published details about one of the graves, numbered 167, and it's a fascinating story. Archaeologist Eric Cox:
I was actually digging that one, and it was toward the end of the day when we started to uncover it. I got her skull uncovered, and I got to her left side, and … what stuck out to me was that her entire left side was gracile — it hadn’t developed as much as the right side had. It was like her left side was for a five-foot person, while her right side was for a five-foot-six person. Her skull was like every other skull that we had recovered, but her postcranial skeleton was all stained brown.
Closer inspection revealed that her spine was pockmarked with the pits left by severe bacterial infection.
Together, these signs suggest that the woman in Burial 167 suffered from a series of crippling conditions, each of which likely exacerbated the others.

The lack of symmetry in the woman’s skeleton, Cox explained, was the result of an acute case of scoliosis, or curvature of the spine. Indeed, the condition was so severe that at the base of her skull, her spine curved at an angle of nearly 55 degrees.

The discoloration of her skeleton, meanwhile, and the curvature found in her arms and legs were telltale signs of rickets, a bone disease caused by a deficiency of Vitamin D, most commonly associated with a lack of exposure to sunlight.

Finally, the lesions found along her spine and limbs are the hallmarks of severe tuberculosis, an infection of the lungs that, in the most severe cases, spreads to bone tissue.
This was a seriously sick woman, who had probably not been able to walk for years when she died. That probably explains her rickets: unable to walk, she spent almost all of her time indoors.

Another strange thing was her teeth:
A staple of the typical Hohokam diet, of course, was maize, a gritty starch that was ground on stone metates. Grit from the stone grinders was often ingested with the corn, which caused heavy wear on teeth, a trait found on human remains throughout the pre-contact Southwest.

But the teeth from Burial 167 showed no wear at all.

“Her molars and her other teeth were perfect, basically,” Cox said.

“She had none of this wear, so she had a specialized diet. She wasn’t eating the same stuff that everyone else was eating.”
And yet in terms of grave good this was one of the richest burials in the cemetery, with several pieces of very fine ceramics.

To me the obvious interpretation was that 167 was a very special person, kept alive by her community because of her spiritual significance. Deformed shamans were common around the world, and the crisis that made a shaman was often associated with severe illness. There are many shamans in American Indian lore who ate strange diets -- come to think of it there are also those Hebrew prophets who lived on locusts and honey. It all fits together amazingly well.

Most of the time archaeology is a lot of very dry facts, and it takes a great effort of imagination to see anything beyond flakes and sherds. But sometimes stories spring from the ground.

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