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Dancing Sickness and Burial Removal

Posted On October 22, 2019 | 16:04 pm | by ostmannj01 | Permalink
Scotti Norman conducts the first archaeological investigation into the 1560s Taki Onqoy movement

Scotti Norman, visiting scholar at the Center for Comparative Archaeology at the University of Pittsburgh, was a recent junior fellow in Pre-Columbian Studies. Her research report, “The Archaeology of Taki Onqoy: Revitalization and Religious Entanglement in Highland Peru,” offered a new approach to early native responses to Spanish conquest and conversion.


Q&A with Scotti Norman

What was Taki Onqoy?

Taki Onqoy is a Quechua phrase meaning “dancing sickness.” It was a 1560s revitalization movement in the Andes, in which local individuals rebelled against Spanish colonial laws and practices. Taki Onqoy practitioners preached against the Spanish religion, clothing, foods, all things Spanish. They advocated for a return to pre-Hispanic worship of huacas, local or landscape deities. The movement’s main practices were ritual drinking, dancing in specific enclosures as a form of cleansing, and being spirit-possessed by huacas. Other traditionally pre-Hispanic or Andean practices associated with Taki Onqoy were use of red body paints, music, chanting, and sacrifice of rams and cuys (guinea pigs).

Taki Onqoy has traditionally been studied through two primary source documents written by Spanish priests. Secondary literature that debates the movement has taken a wide range of viewpoints as to its significance in highland Peru. On one end of the spectrum, some scholars argue the movement was the greatest threat to the Spanish crown after they conquered the Andes; on the other, some claim Taki Onqoy never existed and was instead a product of a rivalry between priests.


Why take an archaeological approach to this movement?

My work is the first archaeological survey of Taki Onqoy, and one of only a handful of archaeological studies of revitalization movements in general. Taki Onqoy has held cultural salience for a long time and is still a marker of ethnic identity in the Peruvian highlands today. But it hasn’t been fully understood because of the limitations of these one-sided Spanish religious documents, whose authors didn’t speak native languages or understand local beliefs or people. While the documents are inherently biased, they also provide a lot of insight, and our overall interpretations of this time period can benefit from archaeological investigations into how everyday people were living and undergoing these transformations and cultural contrasts.

I connected a site identified as a Taki Onqoy center by one of the Spanish priests with an archaeological settlement in Peru. Although archaeology has issues of preservation (for example, how would you see dancing?), it gives us a unique chance to look at material signatures of Taki Onqoy not through the lens of the Spanish empire. It also gives us a new way of looking at practices not considered traditionally archaeological. Instead of thinking of archaeology in terms of what people ate, made, or did, my work looks more at what people believed in this time of entangled religion and conquest, and how people navigated these two very different empires.


Share an example from your research of such navigation between beliefs.

In the 1550s, the Spanish put forth many edicts trying to determine the best form of evangelization to produce their desired Catholics. A major practice was baptizing as many people as they could, and interring these individuals beneath the church floor after their death. Unbaptized people were not allowed to be buried there.

Andeans in some places traditionally interacted with the dead: taking them out of tombs, giving them food and water, considering them animate beings. But Catholics thought, how could you understand the concept of a body separate from a soul if you interacted with this inanimate being? So in the first decades after conquest, the Spanish burned a lot of mummies and bodies which had been considered huacas by Andeans.

Excavating the church at the site where I work, we found an array of different burial practices. An idealized Catholic burial would be in extended form in the church as its initial resting place. We found three of those. But we also found initial church burials where the body was in the fetal position—closer to traditional Andean burial style. The burials are at varied angles in relation to the church’s altar, inconsistent with Catholic standards.

Then we found secondary burials: people buried elsewhere initially and then relocated to the church. That’s particularly interesting because it’s wrong in two ways according to Catholic doctrine. Baptized people should have been buried in the church to begin with. Unbaptized people shouldn’t be in the church at all.

We found a couple burials where it looks like people were interacting with parts of the burial and then replacing those parts. Finally we found four removed burials, where there is a burial void—loose sand in the midst of a hard soil matrix—and one or two distal bones from the extremities, which would be the first to detach if you were to remove a body.

The removal of burials horrified Catholic priests, who wrote that Andeans could not fully understand Catholic doctrine if they still felt the need to go back, retrieve burials from the church, interact with the bodies, and rebury them in local places.


Julia Ostmann is postgraduate writing and reporting fellow at Dumbarton Oaks. Photo by Elizabeth Muñoz Huber, postgraduate digital media fellow.