Review Article

Violent times: bioarchaeologies in the Americas

Richard J. Chacon
Department of Sociology and Anthropology, Winthrop University, Rock Hill, SC 29733, USA
(Email: chaconr@winthrop.edu)

Books Reviewed

DEBRA L. MARTIN, RYAN P. HARROD & VENTURA R. PÉREZ (ed.). The bioarchaeology of violence. xiv+291 pages, 42 illustrations, 21 tables. 2012. Gainesville (FL): University of Florida Press; 978-0-8130-4150-6 hardback $74.95.

TIFFINY TUNG. Violence, ritual and the Wari empire. A social bioarchaeology of imperialism in the ancient Andes. xxiv+244 pages, 66 illustrations, 17 tables. 2012. Gainesville (FL): University of Florida Press; 978-0-8130-3767-7 hardback $74.95.

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In recent years, a number of investigations documenting the antiquity and spatial distribution of warfare and ritual violence in the Americas have called for the dispassionate analysis of data and for the accurate contextualisation of the violence being reported (Chacon & Dye 2007; Chacon & Mendoza 2007a & b, 2012). To these publications are now added the well-researched volumes under review here. These works meticulously analyse the types of physical trauma visited upon victims and also explore the many underlying socio-economic and religio-political causes for such violent treatment.

The bioarchaeology of violence

In the first chapter of The bioarchaeology of violence, Pérez points out that violence is part of a larger socio-cultural milieu in which some members of society may support acts of aggression that target certain individuals. He cautions against simplistic notions that unequivocally characterise incidents of violence as deviant behaviour. Klaus' contribution sheds light on the relationship between oppressive societal structures, violence and poor health. Moreover, this investigation documents the negative impact that Western colonisation had on Amerindian populations. Harrod, Liénard and Martin identify the segments of Turkana society which are likely to be subjected to particular forms of violence. Among their many significant findings is that violence is not gender neutral. Montgomery and Perry present data on the killing of a number of individuals from the Early Islamic period site of Qasr Hallabat (the only non-American case study in the collection). The victims' remains were discarded into a cistern, thus fouling a critical water source.

Palkovich's research on the Ancestral Puebloan site of Arroyo Hondo documents the recovery of several individuals who were subjected to lethal violence. These victims may have been thought to be 'witches' and, therefore, their killing would have been considered as a type of 'public service' (see Chacon 2007 for a similar situation in Amazonia). Kuckelman reports the recovery of Ancestral Puebloan human remains in the Northern San Juan region which indicate a variety of lethal and non-lethal trauma. Additionally, evidence of human trophy taking and anthropophagy is put forth. Worne, Cobb, Vidoli and Steadman expose the importance that site visibility played, for defensive purposes, in the selection of Mississippian settlement locations of the Middle Cumberland area. These investigators explore how site selection was related to natural resource acquisition and defensibility. Tiesler and Cucina analyse the frontal bones of ancient Maya skeletons. While both males and females suffered trauma, findings indicate that the frontal bones of males were more likely to show evidence of scalping, defleshing or tzompantli (skull rack) exhibition. Tung's paper identifies the harsh treatment of foreigners among the Wari (a theme taken up in her monograph, below). Data indicate that foreign male captives were decapitated and their heads converted into human trophies (female trophy heads are uncommon). Foreign female captives were sometimes integrated into society but at a low level of the social hierarchy. Hatch's investigation of the Mississippian Larson site presents evidence which indicates the taking of scalps and mandibles as human trophies. This research also points out the difficulties of distinguishing between instances of secondary mortuary rites and cannibalism. Koziol puts forth evidence for the human sacrificial offerings at Cahokia's Mound 72 and also observes how mortuary practices reflect social relationships. Finally, Duncan's work on Mesoamerican sacrificial skull deposits at Ixlú, Guatemala, indicates that victims were likely related to each other (perhaps as part of a lineage).

Violence, ritual, and the Wari empire

Tung's Violence, ritual, and the Wari empire offers great insight into Wari society. After introducing the Wari empire and providing a synopsis of the bioarchaeological approach, in Chapter 2 Tung puts forth theoretical frameworks for understanding the relationship between political complexity and the human body, emphasising skeletal material. This chapter also offers a useful overview of Andean ritual fighting (tinku) that complements previous work on Andean ritual combat (Chacon et al. 2007). Situating the Wari in the larger Andean context, Chapter 3 describes three study sites from which human skeletal remains are analysed: Conchopata (urban centre with craft specialisation), Beringa (hinterland village in the crop-growing yungas zone) and La Real (elite mortuary location). This section also provides a summary of the origins of the Wari empire. In Chapter 4, age-at-death and sex profiles are provided for each study site in order to reconstruct aspects of community organisation. The findings at Conchopata indicate a high female-to-male ratio. This may be the result of males travelling to distant regions as part of a military campaign and then failing to return. Beringa had a symmetrical sex distribution, while La Real's burial population had more males than females.

Chapter 5 reports how Conchopata females were often targets of violence while the Beringa data indicate that males and females sustained their injuries in different kinds of violent encounters. The findings at La Real suggest that males may have regularly engaged in tinku. Chapter 6 documents the recovery of human trophy heads at Conchopata. Analysis of strontium isotope data indicates that trophy heads were taken in foreign locales. The taking of such trophies may have served to establish political control in the region. Furthermore, the transformation of disembodied human heads into trophies possessing supernatural power was likely performed by ritual specialists. Chapter 7 summarises how patterns of Wari aggression were designed to promote state agendas. Individuals who faithfully served the state as a warrior class would have enjoyed enhanced social status. A class of ritual specialists gained and maintained legitimacy by converting disarticulated human heads into supernaturally charged trophies. This speculation finds support in how some modern day Amazonian Shuar (Jívaro) leaders employ their guardianship of tsantsas (shrunken heads) as a means of legitimising their tribal authority (Rubenstein 2007).

Since groups such as the Inka built upon practices originating with the Wari (e.g. forced relocation of populations for state projects), this research should appeal not just to Wari specialists but also to Andean scholars more generally. Throughout the book, Tung's skilful use of analogies to modern state societies and situations greatly elucidates the information presented.

Together, these two important publications shed much-needed light on the impact that warfare and ritual violence had on the lives of individuals. Additionally, these investigations will greatly enhance our understanding of how various forms of violence were employed to further certain political agendas. Both volumes incorporate an interdisciplinary approach which identifies the various socio-economic and religio-political factors associated with warfare and ritual violence and they pave the way towards a better understanding of the multi-faceted nature of human conflict. In this manner, both of these volumes can rightly be considered as part the legacy of the late Phillip L. Walker (1947-2009). A biological anthropologist based at UC Santa Barbara, Walker was among the first to champion the coupling of biological anthropology with ethnographic data (see Walker & Hewlett 1990). These volumes testify that Phil Walker was and remains an inspiration to all who had the privilege of knowing him.

References

  • CHACON, R. 2007. Seeking the headhunter's power: the quest for Arutam among the Achuar Indians of the Ecuadorian Amazon and the development of ranked societies, in R. Chacon & D. Dye (ed.) The taking and displaying of human body parts as trophies by Amerindians: 523–46. New York: Springer.
  • CHACON, R. & D. DYE. 2007. The taking and displaying of human body parts as trophies by Amerindians. New York: Springer.
  • CHACON, R. & R. MENDOZA. 2007a. North American indigenous warfare and ritual violence. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.
    – 2007b. Latin American indigenous warfare and ritual violence. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.
    – 2012. The ethics of anthropology and Amerindian research: reporting on environmental degradation and warfare. New York: Springer.
  • CHACON, R., Y. CHACON & A. GUANDINANGO. 2007. Blood for the Earth: the Inti Raimi festival among the Cotacachi and Otavalo Indians of highland Ecuador, in R. Chacon & R. Mendoza (ed.) Latin American indigenous warfare and ritual violence: 118–41. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.
  • RUBENSTEIN, S. 2007. Circulation, accumulation, and the power of Shuar shrunken heads. Cultural Anthropology 22(3): 357–99.
  • WALKER, P. & B. HEWLETT. 1990. Dental health, diet and social status among central African foragers and farmers. American Anthropologist 92(2): 383–98.