Abstract

Funeral ritual is a projective symbolic system where the treatment received by a deceased individual does not necessarily reflect the social position of that individual when living. Study of past social relations based on mortuary treatment alone is potentially ambiguous. Because many diseases leave indelible marks on the skeleton, human bones provide independent information reflecting the health and behavior of the deceased. Integrating the studies of mortuary treatment and osteological pathology can achieve a fuller understanding of past societies. Equipped with this hybrid methodology, we tried to unravel the social relations of an early Neolithic community at Jiahu in central China. The considerable difference in the quantity and quality of grave offerings indicates the presence of competitive display in funeral practice. However, the individuals buried in richly furnished graves had higher rates of iron-deficiency anemia than those buried in poorly furnished graves, indicating that higher status at death was not inherited but achieved. Osteoarthritis rates in the females were lower than that of the males, suggesting that they were less engaged in mechanically stressful activities. This sexual division of labor is reflected in a differential mortuary treatment in that fewer females were buried in the communal graveyards and their graves were furnished with less material wealth. Yet, the females had lower iron-deficiency anemia rates, suggesting that playing a physically less strenuous role did not hinder their access to critical resources such as meat in the diet.

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Additional Information

ISSN
1535-8283
Print ISSN
0066-8435
Pages
pp. 242-298
Launched on MUSE
2009-01-23
Open Access
No
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