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Early Classic Social Transformations: Identity, Community, and Authority at Charco Redondo, Oaxaca, Mexico


This dissertation is an examination of the entanglements between the people, objects, and practices that created an Early Classic (A.D. 250-500) communal mortuary space at Charco Redondo, in coastal Oaxaca, Mexico. The purpose of this project is two-fold: to provide a comprehensive analysis of Early Classic mortuary practices at Charco Redondo and to explore the role of identity within a changing political landscape. Using a practice-based, comparative approach, I show how mortuary ritual continued the Formative Period tradition of communal burial but created distinct notions of identity within that space and altered how political authority was constituted.

Individuals were discretely interred in a variety of positions, with a range of offerings and displayed kin-relatedness as determined through an intracemetery biodistance analysis. This is in contrast to Formative Period supradomestic internment practices, characterized by highly concentrated, disturbed burials and limited individual offerings. Changes in Early Classic burial practice are suggestive of a move towards indelibly marking one’s individual identity and position in the social hierarchy. Nonetheless, inhabitants continued to reference preexisting understandings of the world through collective burial.

During the Formative Period, political authority was constituted through communal ritual practices; practices that often entailed the muting of social inequalities. After the disintegration of the region’s tenuously centralized polity at the end of the Terminal Formative (AD 100-250), I argue that coastal elites engaged in trade relations, particularly with Teotihuacan, which led to new opportunities to enhance social status and express that identity in death. I consider how objects acquired through elite networks increased certain individuals’ authority, while at the same time, the reallocation of these objects in communal ritual and caches aided in normalizing new definitions of identity. I conclude that changes in mortuary practice reflect ideological transformations in regards to identity, and that religious practice no longer constrained the expression of identity as it did in the previous Formative Period. This research contributes to discourses that view religious practice as crucial to political dynamics rather than epiphenomenal, as ritual is often a site through which power and identity are negotiated and contested at all levels of society.

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