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A newly excavated Zapotec burial site has yielded a fresh interpretation of the ancient, grisly Mesoamerican custom of removing thighbones from the dead. Across pre-Hispanic Mesoamerica, femurs were believed to contain an individual’s power. Aztecs treated them as war trophies, while Zapotec royalty are thought to have used them like sceptres, as symbols of ancestral political might.
The new excavation, in a relatively humble residential dwelling in the ancient city of Mitla, suggests that ancestral thighbone-wielding “may not have been a practice limited to rulers,” wrote researchers led by Field Museum archaeologist Gary Feinman in a study published in December in Antiquity. Thighbone customs of the Zapotec civilization, which reigned from the late 6th century BC to the early 16th century in what is now the Oaxaca valley of Mexico, are best known from a pair of burial sites.
The first, a 16th-century tomb in the city of Monte Alban that was excavated in the 1930s, yielded the remains of nine individuals, along with three extra femurs. These had been cut and painted, suggesting Aztec-style trophy use. In the 1970s, another 16th-century tomb was excavated, this time in the smaller city of Lambityeco. It was part of a palatial residence, clearly occupied by rulers, six of whom had been buried there — but only three of their thighbones remained. The rest were missing.
Friezes on the wall depicted men holding what appeared to be femurs, giving rise to the interpretation of thighbones as scepters. Subsequent burial excavations have supported this hypothesis, but the sites have tended to be poorly preserved, with skeletons missing many bones.