Mortuary Treatment, Pathology, and Social Relations of the Jiahu Community

Article excerpt


ALL SOCIETIES EMPLOY SOME REGULAR PROCEDURES or set of procedures for the disposal of the dead (O'Shea 1984:33). Mortuary data, therefore, are invaluable information for the reconstruction of many aspects of past societies. However, funeral ritual is a projective symbolic system because the link between the funerary treatment received by a deceased individual and the social status of that individual when living varies from society to society. Efforts to monitor the social relations among the dead based on the mortuary data alone may generate biased interpretations.

To mitigate this ambiguity, we can rely on analysis of human bones, which are sensitive to the environment. Factors such as diet, disease, and mechanical stress leave indelible marks on the bones. Therefore, bones provide excellent records of the interaction between the environment and behavior in an individual's lifetime. However, if we are content answering questions only of health and lifestyle with the osteological data, we miss the opportunity to elucidate the underlying social factors that generated the osteological pattern in the first place.

This article is an exercise in creating a dialogue between the analytical results of the study of mortuary treatment of the deceased and the pathological study of the human skeletal remains. We will demonstrate that mortuary data and pathological data are two independent but complementary classes of information. When used together they can generate constructs of the past richer than can be generated with either body of evidence alone. The hybrid methodology proposed in this paper has general applicability to the archeological studies of past societies based on materials recovered from human burials.

The archaeological case under study is the human burial assemblage of Jiahu in central China, an early Neolithic site dated to the seventh millennium B.C. We follow the strategy that a comprehensive study of mortuary practice is first conducted and the results are interpreted. The mortuary pattern is then evaluated by the pathology documented on the skeletal remains. Although much has been gained in the understanding of the social relations of the Jiahu community through the systematic analyses of mortuary variation, two findings in the light of the pathological study are particularly intriguing.

First, we have isolated a small group of individuals who had been treated with outstanding material wealth by the Jiahu standard. Many archaeologists would interpret them as prestigious individuals, yet their bones bear more symptoms of poor health pertaining to a high-grain low-meat diet than the non-prestigious or common individuals. Greater burial good wealth, therefore, does not have a direct relationship, and can even have an inverse relationship, to the foodways of the individuals as living members of the community.

Second, we have also determined that the females as a group were not treated as well as the males in the burials, indicating sex was one of the factors regulating the mortuary practice of Jiahu. The bones of the females had a lower frequency of mechanical stress-related diseases, indicating that they played a daily role different from that of the males. A sexual division of labor was the likely attribution of the sex-based differential burial treatment. Moreover, the female remains show that they suffered less frequently from iron-deficiency anemia than the males. Playing a less physically strenuous role in the community did not seem to hinder the females in acquiring a more balanced diet.


Mortuary data are one of the most common classes of information recovered from archaeological sites. This invaluable source of information is particularly useful in the reconstruction of past societies. Yet, the social position of an individual is not necessarily directly reflected by the mortuary treatment received by the individual upon death. …


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