Bahamian Death in its Cultural Context

Interpreting mortuary patterns of the deceased requires not only archaeological evidence, but an understanding of the broader cultural patterns. Funerary rites and burial practices are shaped by the social and cultural ideologies and structures of the community. Mortuary patterns have long been thought to be a reflection of religious ideology and social structure. For example, the belief in the concept of the dead becoming ancestors can lead to secondary burial practices whereby the body and the soul are transitioned from one state to another over a given period of time (Hertz 1960). On the other hand, the process by which this occurs, the burial form and furniture, and the attention given to the individual are indicative of their social status or rank (Binford 1971). Intense connections with ancestors can mean there is a social emphasis on heredity in economics or status (Bloch and Perry 1982). Schaffer et al. (2012) examine three prehistoric skeletal remains from a Bahamian site within the cultural context in order to better understanding the purpose behind this specific burial.

The site is known as Preacher’s Cave and is located in the Bahamas. Three burials were found at the back of the cave and are connected with the Lucayan-Taino culture. The position as carefully noted during the 2007 excavation, and age, sex and pathology have all been noted. All three are young adults (21-35 years old). Two date from 810 to 1010 CE and one from 1040-1100 CE, but these dates may overlap with archaeological evidence arguing for a 1000-1100 CE burial. Burial one was a female, wrapped in a plaited mat on her left side. Her skull shows anterior flattening suggesting artificial cranial modification. One third of her teeth showed carious lesions, and she had a fairly high amount of osteoarthritis, as well as healed fractured ribs.  Burial two was male and had a number of schmorl’s nodes, potentially caused by herniated discs.  He was found with cordage which may suggest that he was bound, and was placed face down in the grave. Burial three was also male, who was wrapped in a plaited mat and had a number of grave goods made from marine resources. Cut marks at the cervical vertebrae suggest the individual was beheaded. His cranium also exhibits artificial modification at the frontal bones. One third of his teeth have caries, and osteoarthritis and trauma were present in his vertebrae.

Schaffer et al. 2012

The high amount of degenerative damage done to the skeleton suggests that their lifestyles were extremely hard and involving physical labor. In comparison to other Lucayan-Taino burials, these patterns of wear are more likely to be found on older individuals, suggesting the sample of three had a harder lifestyle than most. Poor dental health shows that they were getting their food primarily from agricultural goods high in sugar like maize. Stable isotope analysis of the individuals in comparison with other Lucayan-Taino burials suggests they were eating less marine resources than normal, and were fairly reliant on terrestrial foods.

Schaffer et al. 2012

By combining this skeletal information with the burial context, grave goods and ethnographic information, Schaffer et al. (2012) attempt to interpret the mortuary patterns occurring here. The location of the burials in a cave is fairly common for the Lucayan-Taino culture. Their cosmology states that caves are the entrance to the Underworld, therefore individuals of high status are buried in caves to allow easier access to the afterlife. The presence of marine resource grave goods suggests a connection to their creation myth where the primary god Yaya appears in the sea. Ethnohistoric accounts suggest that woven hammocks were placed around individuals of high status, so the presence of the plaited mat of two of the individuals potentially means they were of high status. Basketry and weaving were particularly important in this period as a trade good, and their inclusion in the burial may show the importance of the individuals in trading activities.

Schaffer et al. (2012) argue that “Lucayan–Taino grave location, body treatment, burial form and grave furniture were likely of ritual importance, held inherent symbolic meaning and helped reinforce group ideology”. Based on the burial form of grave two, they argue that the individual was likely related to witchcraft and was bound to prevent wrecking havoc on the living. Burials one and three, which were buried at the same time after burial two, have similar layout and assemblages, suggesting they were of the same rank. The presence of a higher amount of grave goods with the male suggest he may have been a ceremonial leader who was highly valued in the society. The female likely represents one of the matriarchs or a high ranking female. What is positive about this article is that it combines cosmology, ethnohistory and archaeology in order to better interpret a site. The comparisons with other sites from the same culture also is important in helping to understand what is similar and dissimilar between the majority of burials and the burial site in question. While some of the conclusions regarding their statuses are a little beyond what the evidence provides, it nevertheless is a good example of looking beyond the bones to the wider mortuary and social context.

Works Cited
This post was chosen as an Editor's Selection for ResearchBlogging.orgSchaffer, W., Carr, R., Day, J., & Pateman, M. (2012). Lucayan-Taíno burials from Preacher’s cave, Eleuthera, Bahamas International Journal of Osteoarchaeology, 22 (1), 45-69 DOI: 10.1002/oa.1180

Bloch and Parry 1982. Death and Regeneration of Life. Cambridge University: Cambridge.

Binford 1971. Mortuary practices: their study and potential. In Approaches to the Social Dimensions fo Mortuary practices. Society for American Archaeology.

Hertz 1960 A Contribution to teh Study fo the Collective Representation of Death. In Death and the Right Hand. Free Press:NY.

5 responses to “Bahamian Death in its Cultural Context

  1. Pingback: News » Blog Archive » Editor’s Selections: Family medical histories, a grave in the Bahamas, medieval malaria, and macaques·

    • Burial two, the decapitated individual is thought to be special since they were also found bound and face down. Its possible they were a criminal or a shaman. The authors don’t mention whether the decapitation was perimortem or postmortem, so we won’t know if it is cause of death or removal afterwards as a trophy or protection against witchcraft. Unless we had full access to the skeletal report and information about the culture, we won’t be able to completely understand this burial.

      • Good overview of the Schaeffer et al article. Actually, we cannot tell if decap is peri or post, if the postmortem interval is sufficiently short that the vertebrae were still ‘greasy’. This lack of fine-tuning has meant Katie Tucker (The Headless Romans and other UK decap burials) can only observe that the head was severed, not when, although the position of the cut marks, eg over major arteries would be a helpful clue. I admit I havent re-read the article for a while (I was too busy being annoyed my own observations on Bahamian materials from Apr 2009 had not been cited by the authors) but I suspect the hard work may relate to the two levels of Taino society: the Nobles and commoners(NiTaino and Naborio). But its been a while.

      • Thanks for the insight! If you’re doing work on a similar collection and have come to different conclusion I would love to read your work and add it to the site as an update on the material!

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