Last week, I attended the first Latin American and Caribbean Lunch of the semester, hosted by OU’s Center for the Americas. Jessica Cerezo-Román, an assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology, came to speak to us about her medical anthropology research on ancient Native American burial traditions in the Southwestern US/Northern Mexico. Her talk was titled “Landscapes of Remembrance and Embodiment: Between the Classic Period Hohokam and Trincheras Traditions.” Although I had known nothing about these tribes and their culture, I chose to come to the presentation because I find medical anthropology fascinating. I had the opportunity to take my first class in the anthropology department last year, and loved learning about anthropology’s contributions to our understanding of past civilizations.
Cerezo-Román’s research focuses on primarily two tribes that existed in the pre-Hispanic borderlands. The Hohokam tribe lived in what in now central and southern Arizona, with evidence of early Hohokam around 1 AD and late Hohokam around 1500 AD. Meanwhile, Trincheras Native American culture blossomed in the present-day Mexican state of Sonora. Most of the skeletal samples examined by Cerezo-Román were estimated to come from the Classical time period in the Americas, between 1150-1500 AD.
While the Hohokam and Trincheras cultures were both apparently complex and fascinating, Cerezo-Román focuses her attention and expertise on revealing details about the burial practices of these tribes. From here, she is able to infer a surprising amount about the ancient societies. She shared with us her primary research questions: “What does treatment of the dead tell us about social interactions on a broader regional level?” and “What do cremation funerals tell us about ideologies of group identity?”
One interesting aspect of the burial practices of both tribes is the prevalence of cremation. Most often, the ashes of the deal would be placed in vessels (clay pots) and laid on the earth. However, she also found that ashes would sometimes be apparently scattered without a vessel. What’s more, there are some fascinating distinctions between the typical locations of remains that reveal differences between the two tribes. While their burial practices might appear identical at first, the Hohokam and Trincheras differed greatly in where they placed their dead. The Hohokam tended to place the cremated remains, either in vessels or without, near the person’s family home. Sometimes, the vessels would even be found in the home itself. Interestingly, this was never the case in Trincheras villages. Instead, remains would be placed in communal cemeteries in unmarked vessels. This says a lot about how the two tribes thought of their deceased. In Hohokam tradition, the location of the ashes suggests a stronger connection to the dead, as well as a commitment to remembrance of individuals. But in Trincheras settlements, the burial patterns emphasized a much more collective mindset. It seems especially significant that the dead were all placed in unmarked and unadorned clay vessels, regardless of the person’s status place in society. I imagine that Trincheras society must have been remarkably cohesive and perhaps humble, with a strong value for collectivity and commitment to the whole.
Overall, Cerezo-Román’s presentation was fascinating. She came with a wealth of content to share with us, and was clearly passionate about her research. I could tell that I was not alone in my interest, as there were more questions and comments afterward than I have ever seen at one of these lunches! I’ve already registered for the next Latin American and Caribbean lunch, and am looking forward to it!