January 1999 Meeting of the Pre-Columbian Society

Saturday January 9, 1999 at the University Museum.

Dr  Karen Stothert, "8000 Years of Mortuary Ceremonialism in Coastal Ecuador"

Although the excavation of human remains is controversial in the United States, the study of ancient cemeteries is an important aspect of prehistoric research in Ecuador.  The excavation of a very early, preceramic cemetery on the Santa Elena Peninsula  has resulted in the creation of a cultural icon (the Lovers of Sumpa)  and the construction of a major regional museum.  In this lecture Stothert discussed, and illustrated with slides, what has been learned from the excavation of
mortuary features, and how the burial of the dead and the worship of ancestors was an key theme in the cultures of ancient Ecuador.
In her work, Dr. Stothert has found that mortuary ritual activities have served as a cultural focus for Ecuadoran beliefs about life, death and fertility.  On the Santa Elena Peninsula, many of the traditions coming  from the  ancient rituals of exhumation, wrapping and reburying of the dead for placation and reverence of ancestors have continued to  influence mortuary practices  right through the conquest  until the present day.  Today, one can find unbaptised children buried beneath  the  regional style of houses on stilts, as well as ancestral skulls and bones within the houses for protection from storms and other evils.  On Todos Santos, the traditional family prepares an early morning feast  for the dead,  with a handwoven tablecloth reminiscent of grave wrappings and tradionally made corn tortillas.
The archeological record of mortuary practices has been divided into six stages of development from 8000 BCE until 1550 CE.  Changes of numbers of bodies and their positions in graves are indicative of these periods, as are the inclusion of differing grave goods.  Throughout the changes, there was found continued evidence of ritual exhumation and reburial.  Dr. Stothert has noted that following the "first contact" with European diseases, there were at least some mass burials  of  the excessive numbers of dead in the region.
Today, many of the old practices are dying out, and Dr. Stothert is hopeful that the regional museum she helped to begin on the Santa Elena Peninsula will continue to record and preserve these rituals.

Karen Stothert has a Ph.D. in anthropology from Yale and has carried out field work in Peru and Bolivia, but for more than 20 years has focused her research on the southwest coast of Ecuador where she has carried out both archaeological and ethnographic research.  She described the
preceramic Las Vegas culture, and more recently has been working on ceramic period sites.  She is interested in material culture, burial customs, the origins of agriculture, and shamanism, art and ideology . Recently she was instrumental in the design and building of  a major regional museum which celebrates history and ethnic identity on the Peninsula of Santa Elena.  This year she is a Fellow at Dumbarton Oaks in Washington (writing a book called "Feeding the Dead: An Archaeology of the Coast of Ecuador").

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