Human remains found buried in downtown Tempe, Arizona, are revealing a touching story about one young woman’s painful life and the community that cared for her more than 800 years ago.
The remains consist of a complete skeleton of a 20 year old woman — one of 172 buried or cremated remains that archaeologists have uncovered while studying a swath of Tempe’s city center to make way for a light rail system.
But the young woman’s grave, referred to as Burial 167, quickly caught the researchers’ attention.
For one thing, her skeleton was severely disfigured, likely from a combination of both congenital and contracted diseases.
And for another, her grave was one of the most richly appointed of all the burials that were studied.
For Eric Cox, the archaeologist who led the excavation, these revelations raised a number of questions.
How, he wondered, did a woman with disabilities so severe that she was likely unable to walk manage to survive into her 20s?
And why, after her death, was she given an ornate burial treatment typically reserved for elders and elites?
The answer seems to lie in the character of the 13th-century community of the Hohokam, or Ancestral Sonoran Desert culture, that was her home, Cox said. [See new insights into ancient Hohokam artifacts: “Mesoamerican ‘Fool’s Gold’ Mirrors Found in Arizona Reveal Ties to Ancient Mexico“]
“There’s more that we can say about these people besides, they lived, they died, and this is where they were put,” he said in an interview.
“By looking at her deformities and maladies and everything she went through in life, it says a lot more about the community in which she lived, than what she struggled with.”
Burial 167 was uncovered in 2006 by Cox and his colleagues at the firm of URS, while they were studying the area that was to become the site of the Tempe Transportation Center.
Their excavations revealed the traces of a “very large village site” that was inhabited by the Hohokam from the 700s to the 1400s, Cox said.
Known today as La Plaza, the settlement was first documented by archaeologists in the 1940s, who noted that the village seemed to play a key role in the intricate network of canals that the Hohokam had built throughout the Phoenix valley. [See a discovery made nearby: “Oldest Human Footprints in the Southwest Discovered at Tucson Construction Site“]
“It was at the headgates of a main canal, and at the time it would’ve been a very large and very important site,” Cox said of the village.
Much of La Plaza was lost to history as the city of Tempe and Arizona State University began to grow.
But a new way of understanding the ancient village presented itself when Cox uncovered Burial 167.
“I was actually digging that one, and it was toward the end of the day when we started to uncover it,” he said.
“I got her skull uncovered, and I got to her left side, and … what stuck out to me was that her entire left side was gracile — it hadn’t developed as much as the right side had.
“It was like her left side was for a five-foot person, while her right side was for a five-foot-six person.”
What’s more, much of the skeleton below the cranium was discolored.
“Her skull was like every other skull that we had recovered, but her postcranial skeleton was all stained brown,” Cox said.
“There was no evidence of any kind of burning or anything else in the burial pit that would explain why her postcranial skeleton was discolored.”
Finally, a closer inspection revealed even more unusual clues: cavities in her vertebrae and leg bones, caused by a systemic infection.
Together, these signs suggest that the woman in Burial 167 suffered from a series of crippling conditions, each of which likely exacerbated the others.
The lack of symmetry in the woman’s skeleton, Cox explained, was the result of an acute case of scoliosis, or curvature of the spine.
Indeed, the condition was so severe that at the base of her skull, her spine curved at an angle of nearly 55 degrees.
The discoloration of her skeleton, meanwhile, and the curvature found in her arms and legs were telltale signs of rickets, a bone disease caused by a deficiency of Vitamin D, most commonly associated with a lack of exposure to sunlight.
Finally, the lesions found along her spine and limbs are the hallmarks of severe tuberculosis, an infection of the lungs that, in the most severe cases, spreads to bone tissue.
Each of these pathologies likely cascaded into another, Cox said.
“She probably had the scoliosis deformity that led to her not being able to walk,” he said.
“She might have been born with it. You can’t really tell.”
Immobilized by the scoliosis, the woman likely became bed-ridden, where the lack of sunlight led to the onset of rickets.
“You wouldn’t think rickets would be a problem here in the Southwest where there’s plenty of sun,” Cox said.
“So part of what we were thinking was that she didn’t get any sun exposure because she was kept in her dwelling, which makes sense with the curvature of her spine, because if she could have walked, it would’ve been really painful.”
These illnesses, then, likely made the woman susceptible to infections like tuberculosis, Cox added.
But another factor might have contributed to her condition, too.
Judging by the condition of her teeth, he said, the woman in Burial 167 ate a completely different diet from the rest of those in her village.
A staple of the typical Hohokam diet, of course, was maize, a gritty starch that was ground on stone metates. Grit from the stone grinders was often ingested with the corn, which caused heavy wear on teeth, a trait found on human remains throughout the pre-contact Southwest.
But the teeth from Burial 167 showed no wear at all.
“Her molars and her other teeth were perfect, basically,” he said.
“She had none of this wear, so she had a specialized diet. She wasn’t eating the same stuff that everyone else was eating.”
Perhaps the woman’s diet led to malnutrition that contributed to her many illnesses, Cox speculated.
But perhaps her diet wasn’t a sign of neglect, he added, but a sign of veneration.
The young woman was clearly not like other citizens of La Plaza, Cox explained, so it’s possible that she was treated not as a liability but as an elite — perhaps one with special spiritual significance.
“There are ethnographic accounts of people with deformities [being treated] in a ritual context like shamans, where they ate different foods than the other people did,” he said.
This special status might also explain the lavish condition of her grave, Cox added.
“The thing that broke out as unusual, beside her skeletal deformity, was the amount of grave items that were placed in the burial with her,” he said.
The woman’s grave featured at least a half-dozen ceramic items, including a jar, a cylindrical vessel, a bowl placed near her head, another coated in the metallic mineral schist placed upside-down over her feet, and another bowl by her left side that contained a small ceramic effigy of a duck.
Among the 172 burials unearthed at La Plaza, the grave goods in Burial 167 were rivaled only by three other graves, Cox said — two of an older male and female, and one of a five-year-old girl.
“She had more items than a majority of the other ones,” he said.
What, if any, ritual power the young woman had is a matter of pure speculation, he cautioned.
But her burial treatment — and the fact that she lived as long as she did — shows that her community saw her as a valuable member, even if she couldn’t directly contribute to the livelihood of the group.
“Conceivably, someone with these kinds of deformities is not going out and working in the fields or making pots,” Cox said.
“But they took care of her for decades. It wasn’t like she was taken out to a hill and left to die because she was never going to be a productive member. The community banded together and took care of this woman for her whole lifetime.”
Regardless of what her medical history or social status really was, her treatment in death gives insights into what Cox and his colleagues describe as the bioarchaeology of care — a glimpse into how prehistoric cultures cared for their ill and infirm.
“It humanizes the Hohokam, by looking at their human and cultural response to adversity,” he said.
“In my way of thinking — and this is just me personally — I think she was probably born with this deformity. And because of that, she was imbued with some sort of ritual power or knowledge, and so she was treated differently from other people in her community, which may have led to being kept inside and eating a specialized diet. And then they took care of her until she passed away.
“And you could say in that respect that she was a contributing member of her group, through the ritual aspect of her life.
“And when she passed away, they made her burial more substantial than other people who died at the same time.”
Through the bioarchaeology of care, Cox concluded, researchers can learn about someone who lived at another time and in another culture “as a person, instead of just another number.” [See an exciting new discovery made in Arizona: “Thousands of Ancient Petroglyphs, ‘Dramatic’ Solar Calendar Reported in N. Arizona“]
“I think one of the most important things that we can get out of this, is that we can start looking at these less as burials and skeletons, and look at them more as people,” he said.
“This was a girl that had a really rough life in a lot of ways. Yet she was well taken care of by her community and celebrated in her death, which says a lot more about the people that lived there at the time than about her.
“If you look at people today, if you have a child that’s born with a handicap, you take care of that child and you love that child and you do what you can to give that child the best life possible,” he added.
“And I think that correlates with this sort of obscure Hohokam culture and makes it more personable.
“They’re just the same as we are.
“They didn’t have air conditioning and motor vehicles, but their wants and their desires and the way they lived their lives were fairly similar, when you get down to the basics.”
Cox and his colleagues report their findings in the journal Kiva.
Dongoske, K., Cox, E., & Rogge, A. (2016). Bioarchaeology of Care: A Hohokam Example KIVA, 80 (3-4), 304-323 DOI: 10.1080/00231940.2016.1147160