November 28, 2014  

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Anthropologists Study Maya Remains from Central America

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Researchers from across the nation have visited The University of Southern Mississippi over the past few months in order to work with one of the largest Maya skeletal series. Their research will reveal much about the physical characteristics, health and culture of the Maya Indians whose remains were excavated at Tipu, an archaeological site in the Maya Mountains near the Belize-Guatemala border in Central America.

Dating to the mid-16th to early 17th centuries, these remains are among the earliest Maya that Spaniards encountered during the Colonial Period. Five hundred and fifty well-preserved individuals were recovered from the church and the surrounding graveyard. 

The series was moved to Southern Miss this summer when Dr. Marie Danforth, professor in the Department of Anthropology and Sociology, became curator of the series.  Danforth wrote her dissertation based on Tipu. For years, the collection’s home had been at State University of New York at Plattsburgh under the care of Dr. Mark Cohen, director of the cemetery excavation in the 1980s. Since Cohen’s retirement, the collection has been moved to Southern Miss’ Walker Science Building.

“What is so important to note is that these human remains are handled with great care and utmost respect and dignity. They are, after all, someone’s ancestors,” said Danforth.

“However, through innovative research that protects the integrity of the remains, anthropologists are able to determine so much about the lifeways of the population.”

So far scholars from four different universities have visited the Tipu collection at Southern Miss to conduct projects. This past summer, an anthropologist from Middle Tennessee State University spent a few weeks with the collection looking for evidence of rickets as part of a larger investigation looking at the interaction of the effects of latitude and diet. 

During the spring 2014 semester, a doctoral student from Texas A&M University will conduct isotope analysis on tooth enamel that will reveal area of origin, specifically whether individuals were local residents or immigrants who had sought refuge from Spanish domination on the northern coast of Yucatan.

In another study, Amanda Harvey, a Ph.D. student from the University of Nevada at Reno, will conduct chemical testing of tooth calculus to determine whether it can reveal what kinds of food the Maya ate. This is a highly experimental method, so she will be comparing her findings with those from another researcher from South Alabama who is investigating diet using a more traditional method involving chemical evaluation of tooth enamel.

Harvey, who graduated from Southern Miss in 2011 with a master’s degree, used the Tipu collection for her thesis exploring childhood growth disruptions, so she is quite familiar with this special collection. She hopes her research and that of the others will help paint a clearer picture of the ways of life experienced by the inhabitants at Tipu during their tumultuous contact with the Spanish.

Harvey extensively incorporates the results of other studies conducted on the series in her work and finds it exciting how development of new methods, such as hers, can continue to refine our understanding of those who resided at the site. “It’s important to remember the value of curated collections and that it is not always necessary to excavate new collections,” said Harvey.

Danforth said the housing this collection is a great opportunity for Southern Miss. “It represents such a tremendous resource, especially concerning its large size and excellent preservation. Students from a variety of different disciplines will be able to use their skills, interests, and technologies to be able to analyze the series,” she said.

While a lot of research has already been conducted from the series, Southern Miss is focusing on studying the patterns of individual identity that archaeological investigation alone cannot reveal.  The site was located on the frontier, which offered an opportunity for its residents to negotiate their interaction with the Spanish.

For information about the Department of Anthropology and Sociology, visit www.usm.edu/anthropology-sociology.