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Crafting Social Identity through the Body in Prehistoric San Pedro de Atacama, Chile

Christina Torres-Rouff, Universidad Católica del Norte, Chile, Summer Fellow 2011/12

Recent research on identity has moved towards an understanding that stresses the co-existence of multiple social identities. By employing a contextualized bioarchaeological approach to interpret archaeological and osteological data from Pre-Columbian north Chile and the myriad sources available at Dumbarton Oaks I was able to explore more nuanced understandings of identity construction in two short manuscripts. Drawing on data from my bioarchaeological research, the first article engages the role of intentional head shaping as a means of conveying group identity in the Chilean Atacama, and the second broadly explores the crafting of social identities between Atacameños and neighboring populations in one period. Writ large, the goal of my research is to develop an understanding of the construction, projection, and manipulation of Atacameño identity during prehistory.

Head Shaping and the Community: Cranial Vault Modification in San Pedro de Atacama's Middle and Regional Development Period Cemeteries tackles the intersection of practice with human agency in head shaping customs in the Middle Period, while Atacameños were within the sphere of influence of the Tiwanaku state, and in the stressful conditions of the subsequent Regional Developments Period. Using data from the skeletal remains of 1,124 individuals, I argue that the Middle Period saw the influence of the altiplano polity in the universal rise in the use of annular forms, promoting individual decisions to modify infants' heads in new ways. In contrast, as the community drew together following Tiwanaku collapse the reshaping of children's heads became a homogenizing practice—one that likely contributed to the construction of group harmony in a difficult time. I hope that this more detailed approach to a large sample will contribute to ongoing scholarly explorations of the dynamics of cranial modification inside Atacameño society and to overarching conversations about the body and identity in prehistory. This manuscript is currently mostly drafted and I intend to submit it to Latin American Antiquity this fall.

Social Differentiation in the Mortuary Context: People and the Grave in the Late Intermediate Period San Pedro de Atacama Oases and the Salado River Valley, in collaboration with Dr. Emily Stovel (Ripon College and Museo Le Paige). Archaeologists have hypothesized that substantial population movement during this period generated considerable cultural heterogeneity. Exploration of two cemeteries from the Salado and four contemporary Atacameño cemeteries yielded results that suggest that they shared material culture while engaging in very different social practices. Our analyses revealed that cranial modification and mortuary ritual are used to represent social and ideological realms and characterize the deliberate crafting of social identity. In contrast, ceramics and other objects of quotidian use do not carry the same symbolic weight. To augment this cultural perspective, I added an analysis of cranial discrete traits (n=281), demonstrating that these populations are biologically distinct groups. We will submit this paper to American Anthropologist later this fall, following the completion of pXRF analyses.

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