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Open Access Publications from the University of California

"Now Dead I Begin to Sing": A Protohistoric Clothes-Burning Ceremonial Feature in the Colorado Desert


The discovery of a well-preserved ceremonial feature at CA-IMP-6427 (the Elmore Site) provided the rare opportunity and special privilege to investigate the archaeological remains of a specific mortuary ritual, the Kumeyaay watlma or clothes-burning ceremony. Burned remains of a female's bark skirt, yucca cordage carrying net, possible yucca sandal fragments, painted ceramic jar, hundreds of shell beads, and a shell pendant were found in a charcoal-filled pit within a Protohistoric Period temporary camp on the receding shoreline of Lake Cahuilla. That this feature could be identified with such certainty is due to several fortunate circumstances. The excellent preservation and spatial separation of the feature from the main occupation area made it possible to interpret it as the remains from a single event in time and space. The well-established late dates of the site and feature (A.D. 1600 to 1700) make an association with the Kumeyaay highly probable, although an affiliation with Delta Yumans is also considered below. Finally, the well-documented examples of Yuman mortuary ritual make an identification of the feature virtually certain. What makes the feature even more significant is the possibility to address aspects of gender and status among the prehistoric ancestors of the modem Kumeyaay, as well as the context of mortuary ceremonies within Late Prehistoric Period settlement systems.

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