Friday, December 27, 2013

Written on her bones: the life of a Mixtec woman

A study of the skeleton of a young Mixtec woman who lived in the Late Post Classic period (A.D. 1250-1540) in Mexico, has revealed a range of both genetic diseases and work related skeletal damage. The results are now part of an exhibition in the Regional Historical Museum of Ensenada, Baja California called Itandikaa Ndiko’o Flor de la eternidad (Itandikaa Ndiko’o - Flower of Eternity).

Physical anthropologist Martha Alfaro Castro and a teams of doctors from the Civil Hospital of Oaxaca who are specialists in genetics, orthopaedics, radiology and dentistry, conducted an interdisciplinary study of the skeleton, found in 2007 in the Mixteca Alta of Oaxaca during a rescue excavation.

The different phases of the analysis, as well as some of the major pathologies detected in the skeletal remains, are presented in 37 photographs as well as seven watercolours created by Oaxacan artist Arrona Ernesto Santiago and acrylic on bark paper by Juan Francisco Lopez Ruiz.

Genetic syndrome

The archaeological materials were transferred to the laboratory of the Centro INAH Oaxaca Osteology, where anthropologist Alfaro Castro performed the analysis of the skeletal remains.

“She suffered a genetic syndrome known as Klippel-Feil Syndrome, that usually causes facial asymmetry and merging of some cervical vertebrae, with the consequent shortening of the neck and mobility limitation in this anatomic region,”  explained Alfaro.

“She also presented a deformation of the shoulder blades, caled Sprengel Deformation , responsible for further asymmetry of the shoulders that gave the women the appearance of having one shoulder higher than the other”  the researcher concluded.

An active life

The osteological evidence, the archaeological context and ethnohistoric sources indicate that women probably belonged to a lower social stratum and despite the health problems associated with the genetic syndrome had an active life and performed a variety of physical tasks from a very early age.

There is osteological evidence to suggest that she was carrying heavy loads on her back with the help of a band or backstrap – which caused vertebrae compression (see painting above).  She also spent much of her time squatting or kneeling which corresponds to tasks such as shelling corn and maize cobs, as well as preparing clay for pottery making, which caused some changes in bones in the region of the knee and feet.

“Normally we see the elite of the society, but here we can meet and appreciate the life and work of an ordinary person from the Mixtec culture.” said Alfaro Castro.

The exhibition is presented in the city of Ensenada on the initiative of the director of the Baja California INAH Centre, archaeologist Bendímez Julia Patterson, and the director of the Regional Historical Museum of Ensenada, Mario Acevedo Andrade, with the purpose of making aspects of ancient cultures of the south such as the Mixteca more accessible.


The exhibition will be at the Regional Historical Museum of Ensenada, until January 2014, the site is located in avenue Gastelum s/n, Ensenada, Baja California.

Past Horizons. 2013. “Written on her bones: the life of a Mixtec woman”. Past Horizons. Posted: November 10, 2013. Available online:

No comments: