Doctoral Dissertation Improvement Grant: Family "Foreigners" and Fictive Kinship: A Bioarchaeolgoical Approach to Ancient Maya Social Organization

Project: Research project

Project Details


Doctoral Dissertation Improvement Grant: Family "Foreigners" and Fictive Kinship: A Bioarchaeolgoical Approach to Ancient Maya Social Organization Doctoral Dissertation Improvement Grant: Family, "Foreigners," and Fictive Kinship: A Bioarchaeolgoical Approach to Ancient Maya Social Organization Factors that influence how people choose to associate and organize into social, political, and economic groups both in the past and present are a long-standing research issues in anthropology. Archaeologists, in particular, have typically based hypotheses about social organization on epigraphic, ethnohistoric, and ethnographic evidence by assuming, with good reason, that geographic proximity in death equates with social proximity during life. Kinship has been assumed to be the basis for this proximity and as such has been taken as the a priori foundation for models of social organization. The proposed research explores kinship through an empirical and theoretically inclined methodology applicable to past, and present, societies by directly engaging individuals who participated in the creation and maintenance of social structure. This project takes a novel approach to the problem of social organization by using new methods and a largely neglected source of data, the human body. The indelible signs of kinship and residence inscribed on the human skeleton during life document individual relationships, identities, and group interactions in ways that are not possible to detect through observation of style and change in material culture. The chemical and biological signatures found in bone highlight the interplay of genealogy and culture and are well suited to accurately document relationships and affiliations since these signatures cannot be seen, distorted, exaggerated, or misrepresented by the individual or society in life or death. The role of kinship can be explored within the nexus of a social group, the residential unit, through a careful analysis of archaeologically contextualized human remains thus highlighting the internal structure of ancient societies more clearly than is possible through material cultural objects alone. Using the case study of the Classic period Maya site of Copan in western Honduras, this research centers on the following question: What are the roles that kinship (biological or fictive) and co-residence play in the internal social organization of a lineage-based and/or house society? This research question highlights two competing models in studies of ancient Maya social organzation and creates a dichotomy through which to approach the problem of social organziation considering multiple possibilities of fictive and biological kinship, short or long-term co-residence, and long-distance kin affiliation. The lineagebased model assumes that membership in a particular neighborhood is based on relationshps by blood and local origins, whereas the house model assumes that blood relationships and local origins are important, but other social relationships may play an equally powerful role in the constitution of social groups. Copan is an ideal place for this study because of its continual occupation from the Early Preclassic to Postclassic periods, its role as a major Maya urban center, and the extensive excavations that have produced the largest skeletal collection in the Maya area, including individuals from distinct residences in the urban environment. Two methods are employed here, first, biodistance to infer biological kinship relationships and second, radiogenic strontium isotope analysis to infer migration and residence. These data will identify whether individuals included and buried within ancient Maya residences at Copan (1) were related to one another, and (2) came from local or non-local geographic origins. These lines of evidence will highlight if either the lineage model or house model of social organization is more appropriate, or if a new model(s) of social organization should be considered for the ancient Maya.
Effective start/end date2/1/121/31/14


  • NSF-ENG: Division of Biological & Critical Systems (BCS): $20,000.00


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