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  • Sleuthing Seri Figurines:Ziix Coosyat Yacaam
  • David Burckhalter (bio)


Four years ago (2014) I was invited by Seri (Comcaac) friends in the fishing village of Punta Chueca, Sonora, Mexico, to join them in celebrating a collection of ancestral sculptural art, small fired clay statuettes called ziix coosyat yacaam. I was shown about two dozen pinched-headed figurines 2 to 7 inches in length. They were arranged in a circle on a bed of sand inside a sea turtle shell. Most of the figurines had short rounded bodies with breasts, buttocks, and stubby legs. These resembled human females. A fewer number of larger figurines were more abstract, mantaray-like with triangular tops that tapered into long stems.

I was told the figurines were discovered on Tiburón Island, that the Giants of yore, huge human-like beings, were the first to create these clay objects. The Giants blew life into the figurines to make them their slaves. Seris I talked to couldn't say why their ancestors also made these mysterious clay figurines. No one had any idea about the age of the figurines.

It appeared that Fate had determined I should be a sleuth. How could I not attend the celebration? How could I not investigate these enigmatic clay figurines? During the Punta Chueca fiesta, I handled and photographed a few of the little sculptures. I discussed them with several Seris, and a plan to research Seri figurines began to form in my mind.

Back home in Tucson, I ruminated on the work of the handful of scholars who had published articles about Seri figurines. The last such article came out 50 years ago, so it seemed about time to re-assess the Seri figurine tradition. Continuing my inquiries, I uncovered a motherlode of unpublished material on Seri figurines in the archives of the University of Arizona Special Collections Library. The path of figurine clues I followed began to unfold like a detective mystery, one piece of the puzzle adding to another.

The investigators who had studied Seri figurines established three [End Page 826] similar, but tedious, parallel typologies (see Typology Charts). Although these typologies helped organize Seri figurines for study, the heart of the mystery still remained. Why did the Ancient Ones create these unusual figurines? What purposes did the figurines serve? Based on their findings and speculations, the aforementioned scholars put forth several theories.

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With visions of figurines dancing in my head, I returned to Seri country. I interviewed the Seri fisherman who discovered the figurines that were honored. I visited locations where groups or caches of figurines had been found: at abandoned Seri campsites in the desert, along the mainland coast, and across the sea on Tiburón Island. While sleuthing the figurine trail, I began to envision the non-agricultural Seris, traditional hunters, fishermen, and gatherers, and how they once survived in the desert by the sea. I started tying together the landscape, the mobile Seri lifestyle in their quest for food and water, the seasonal camping spots where figurines were discovered, and what I knew about Seri ways and beliefs. I interviewed a few senior Seris as to why they thought their ancestors made clay figurines.

Seri figurines had never been dated, so I sought out the technology for calculating the age of fired ceramics, a complicated process called thermo-luminescence dating. Testing a few figurine fragments could establish a window of time for the figurine tradition. Reviewing my notes, mindful of the efforts of earlier researchers, I proposed a few ideas of my own about why Seris made figurines. Imagining an ancient Seri's motives for modeling figurines may be presumptuous, but I decided to give it a go anyway. I examined and photographed four separate caches of Seri figurines, all with documentation data. Hoping for further insight, I returned to the campsites where these caches were found, and then I invented scenarios for their creation.

A Celebration

In May of 2014, I was working on an ethnography project in the Seri (Comcaac) fishing village of Punta Chueca (Socaaix), which is situated on the Sonora coast of...


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