The Missing Femur at the Mitla Fortress and Its Implications

Article excerpt



When Alfonso Caso excavated Tomb 7 at Monte Alban, in the Valley of Oaxaca, Mexico, he discovered one of the most richly furnished tombs ever found in the Americas (Caso 1932). Although most of the tomb's elaborate contents, including metal objects, pertained to the Postclassic period, just prior to the Spanish conquest (AD 1520), the subterranean chamber itself was constructed and first used much earlier, during the Late Classic period (c. AD 600-900). The remains of at least nine individuals were found, yet femora were over-represented (Rubin de la Borbolla 1969). Three of the human femora, which seemingly did not belong to any of the nine individuals, were cut and painted (Caso 1969:60-61). Drawing on Sahagun's accounts of Aztec practices (Sahagun 2.22; Anderson & Dibble 1950-82), Caso interpreted the extra painted femora as war trophies that belonged to the principal tomb occupant.

Decades later in the eastern (Tlacolula) arm of the Valley of Oaxaca, another Late Classic period tomb (Tomb 6) was excavated at Lambityeco (Rabin 1970; Lind 2003; Lind & Urcid 2010). The bone assemblage inside the tomb was scattered and incomplete, with only three of 12 femora present for the six individuals who were interred (Lind & Urcid 1983, 2010: 174-6). The subterranean tomb, which was associated with a palatial residence, was adorned by modelled friezes that displayed the faces of marital pairs, who have been viewed as a sequence of local rulers, probably buried in the tomb. Two male figures in the friezes carry femora that have been interpreted as symbols of office legitimising noble descent from their immediate forebears (Rabin 1970; Lind & Urcid 1983, 2010: 153-62; Miller 1995; Marcus 2006: 225-6).

These two interpretations outline distinct practices for obtaining femora, one through the sacrifice of war captives, whose bones were then used as trophies, and the other involving the removal and curation of bones taken from the interments of honoured or venerated ancestors. Both customs illustrate the symbolic significance associated with human bone in pre-Hispanic Mesoamerica. Yet does the evidence associated with these elaborate burials sustain two different explanations? Given the clear importance of the principal individual interred in Tomb 7 (Marcus 1983), is it possible that data accrued since Caso's discovery now make the interpretation advanced for Lambityeco a better fit for Tomb 7 than Caso's reliance on an Aztec analogy, especially since the most common war trophies were defleshed heads and not femora (e.g. Berryman 2007: 380)?

In this paper we present findings from a recent excavation at the Mitla Fortress, in the Tlacolula arm of the Valley of Oaxaca (near Lambityeco), which yielded new evidence relevant to the two alternative interpretations of curated human femora (Figure 1). At the fortress, we excavated an extended burial that was complete except for one missing femur. The bone was clearly retrieved well after initial interment, probably by a descendant. The context of the burial at the fortress in conjunction with the depictions of femora at Lambityeco lead us to question Caso's interpretation for the presence of the painted femora in Tomb 7 and to propose that those were also symbols of legitimacy associated with venerated ancestors of the interred rather than war trophies.

The importance of femora

A common belief across pre-Hispanic Mesoamerica was that an individual's power--good or bad--was concentrated in the femur or thighbone (Klein 2002; Marcus 2006). The earliest example ofcurated femora accompanying an elaborate burial context dates to c. AD 100 at Chiapa de Corzo, where two sets of worked human femora were recovered with an individual in Tomb 1 (Agrinier 1960). In a much later Terminal Classic burial at Ek Balam in the northern Maya lowlands, the interred ruler held a human femur on which a carved glyph identifies the physical bone as belonging to a specific individual, thought to be the ruler's father (Grube et al. …