Scientists recently presented the oldest evidence of burial objects corresponding to the hunter-gatherer peoples who inhabited what is now the central region of the Argentine Republic. The discovery, made by chance by local residents in the town of Amboy (Córdoba province), revealed the remains of an adult male who died around 4,400 years ago, along with a dowry consisting of a stone ax and a necklace of snails around the neck, a stone pendant and a grinding hand (conana).
The study was conducted by a team from Argentina’s National Council for Scientific and Technical Research (CONICET).
From the mitochondrial DNA analysis of a dental element it was possible to know the maternal lineage of the individual found. The study highlights that this individual possesses exclusive genetic variants not previously found in other ancient individuals or in contemporary populations, which is interpreted as belonging to a lineage that may have originated locally in central Argentina and would later become extinct.
The symbolic role of the dowry in the reproduction of social difference
From a multidisciplinary approach, the work attempts to contribute elements that contribute to the debate about social identities, the differences between people and the emergence of social complexity in these late Holocene societies in the mountains of Córdoba.
Sandra Gordillo, CONICET researcher at the Córdoba Institute of Anthropology (IDACOR) and co-author of the paper, points out: “The necklace consisted of more than twenty large beads obtained from the giant land snail Megalobulimus lorentzianus. In addition to their size, these accounts have some specifics that were likely of interest.”
Gordillo also claims that from a symbolic point of view for this period, at the beginning of the late Holocene, the necklace appears as an identifying element of the region, since later times the designs and contexts of use were more varied. The researcher adds that another feature is that one of the beads has transverse cuts, which likely represent the identity of the person or people who made the necklace.
Although there are currently living snails of this species in the region, no paleontological record has been found in the area, making it very likely that they came from northern Cordoba.
Regarding the stone pendant with greenish tones, also found in the dowry, the researchers estimate that some of its components, such as malachite and chrysocolla, could have come from some deposits within 100 to 200 km, such as Cerro Blanco or Cerro Áspero or a similar environment. As for the hand-polished surface, it is polished on both sides, shows traces of impact with loss of rock material at the ends and residues of a red pigment have been observed in the center.
On the other hand, the scientists involved in the study point out that the discovery of the ax in a tomb over four thousand years old suggests that these objects were used several millennia earlier than assumed, probably to extract firewood and process it into wood or even into shape a weapon.
According to the research team, it should also be considered from a political and social perspective that the axe, the stone bead, the grinding hand and the necklace are intertwined in webs of relationships that go beyond their original or primary functions and that these acquire a symbolic role that reflects the differences reproduced in the social roles between an individual and other members of the community, materializing the relationships between objects and people.
Some of the artifacts found (Photos: Sandra Gordillo and Mariana Fabra)
Despite all the evidence found in this finding, many questions remain. In this regard, Mariana Fabra, CONICET researcher at IDACOR and first author of the paper, points out: “Social bioarchaeology has recently been applied in Argentina. In particular, it allows to face the study of a person’s life from an osteobiographical perspective, recovering the human singularity, historical and contextual. It also makes it possible to reinterpret the information that bioanthropology and archeology normally provide, considering how biological, social and political aspects shape people’s bodies.”
Regarding social identity, Fabra notes that when attempting to reconstruct social identity in this type of evidence, there are several open questions such as: How do burial objects contribute to the construction of the person’s identity in different dimensions? Were these items made to accompany this deceased person in their death ritual?
The study is titled “A Human Body, a Necklace, a Pestle, and a Stone Axe: An Osteobiographical Perspective of a 4,000-Year-Old Burial in the Calamuchita Valley (Córdoba, Argentina). And it was published in the scholarly journal Latin American Antiquity. (Source: CONICET. CC BY 2.5 AR)