How the semi-nomadic groups of Baja California Sur practiced sui generis burials 2,300 years ago

14/04/2021

Contrary to the concept of savage tribes that prevailed for a long time, this research has allowed determining new interpretations about the cosmogony that the Californian indigenous groups had, and that proves that they had a culture with unique characteristics. Physical and biological evidence indicates that the skeletons were buried twice. First, the corpse was placed in a pit, and once it was in an advanced state of decomposition, it was dug up and then manually sectioned for a second burial.

This double burial system, which was practiced since before pre-Columbian times among the Californian Indian groups, was intended to end the suffering of the deceased since the concept of death (as we understand it biologically) did not exist, but the physical changes caused by the process of decomposition made people believe that they experienced pain, so it was thought that sectioning the body freed the individual from this suffering.

The above has been deduced from the series of archaeological and anthropological studies that INAH has carried out since 1991, in diverse sites of the coasts of Baja California Sur, particularly in the place known as El Conchalito, where 56 of the 157 burials discovered up to the moment have been found, and whose antiquity goes from the year 300 B.C. to the time of the contact with the Spaniards.

El Conchalito continues to be the place in the entire peninsula where more burials of this type have been discovered. However, they have also been found in places like Ensenada de Muertos, Fidepaz, Chametla, Rancho Rodriguez, El Quelele and Comitan, in La Paz Bay, El Medano and Barco Varado, in Cabo San Lucas, San Juanico, in the municipality of Comondu, and Bahia Concepcion, in the municipality of Mulege.

The places where the greatest number of burials have been found are those known as concheros (archaeological sites with a high concentration of mollusk remains), where there is also evidence of ceremonial acts carried out by the ancient indigenous people. This proves that they possessed an elaborated culture, contrary to the denomination of wild tribes that prevailed for a long time.

The practice of rites such as double burial, probably also had the purpose of promoting the abundance of natural resources. Anthropological studies speak of a conception of the world different from that of sedentary culture, in which the valuation of death does not exist.

When an individual entered a state of "immobility", the preparation of his burial began: the deceased was placed in a fetal position and was tightly shrouded. At the same time, a bed was prepared with shells where they placed the mortuary bundle and covered it with a mixture of charcoal, earth, and shells, and then covered it with sand. For them, this moment was not death, but a simple change of state, where the pain was a constant because the body changed color, bruises appeared and liquids spilled from the orifices.

According to the beliefs of these groups, to alleviate the pain that the dead person 'felt', they would dig him up months later and section him, when they knew that the joints were fragile due to the decomposition of the flesh. They separated the hip from the trunk, the extremities, and in some cases the skull, and thus, fragmented, they reburied it. With this practice, not only did they free the individual from pain, but automatically he and the other ancestors buried in the same place became guardians of the place, thus guaranteeing that they would continue to provide food resources.

Likewise, among the materials found in the offerings, the presence of a large snail, placed in a vertical position and supported by mollusk remains; a crown of large shells and shells scattered in a rectangular area of 1.0 by 1.5 meters, with an arrangement similar to that observed in the divinatory arts of the indigenous people of California, stands out.

The nomadic hunter-gatherer created ways of thinking different from those found in sedentary populations, many of which have been described as exotic. One of the big questions for those who study these cultures, which for a long time were considered barbarian tribes, is why didn't people stay in one place? The most accepted answer is: because the desert, which does not offer food resources and requires a constant search for food.

The Californian natives did not stay in one place because they did not have the concept of sedentarism in their culture. Besides, for them, the different sites they inhabited were protected by their ancestors, whom they could not abandon, and that is why they returned in an itinerant manner. 

In some of the burials studied, the researchers also identified signs of looting carried out in pre-Hispanic times, which refer to the fact that when a group other than the one that had populated a site arrived, they dug up the dead in their absence in order to appropriate the place.

Discoveries of stone tools used in daily activities, such as projectile points, blades, and harpoons for fishing, as well as remains of seeds, edible plants, and a large number of remains of mollusk shells that served as food, have also been unearthed in addition to this series of sui generis burials.

By Mexicanist, Source: INAH