Death in Motion: Early Agricultural Societies

  December 13, 2021   Read time 1 min
Death in Motion: Early Agricultural Societies
The regenerative powers of death are shown through different kinds of motion or dynamics. First, death is part of an oscillation between death and life, in that death is a permanent partner of life.

This can be traced through the archaeological record. During the middle Preclassic period (1200–400 BCE), the duality of life and death is emphasized, as exemplified in what is considered an extraordinary clay mask found in the archaeological discoveries at the village of Tlatilco, in the Central Highlands.

It represents a human face, half of it corresponding to a living being, the other in skeletal form. In this geographical area the motions of the dead in the afterlife are symbolized by the burial of companions for dead humans—companions in the forms of not only funeral offerings and various goods like vessels, jewels, or tools, but the skeletal remains of dogs.

We know from late ethnohistorical sources that these dogs were believed to accompany individuals, gods, and the sun in their journeys to the underworld. With time, the presence of dogs in Mesoamerican tombs becomes a trait. As for the offerings, they might correspond to materials deemed to be needed by the soul in its journey to the netherworld.

In the western regions of Mesoamerica, a broad variety of funeral rites associated with shaft tombs suggest a kind of social continuity and movement in the afterlife. Archaeologists have learned that these tombs reveal not only distinctive ways of treating the dead body, but also a strong commitment to family ties and ethnic relations.

Typically, several individuals were laid to rest in each of these shaft tombs, and in some instances blood ties have been established between the individuals in one grave. The offerings of tools, which would be used by the deceased to perform his or her job in the afterlife, were common in the later periods—in the netherworld the deceased continued with the work performed while they were alive.

An important finding of the late Preclassic period (400 BCE–200 CE) is a stele found in Izapa, Chiapas, a work considered to be of unparalleled craftsmanship that depicts a seated skeleton wearing a mask on its face. It is one of the earliest representations of death as an element in motion.

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