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Tracing the Vestiges of Childhood: Investigations of Subadult Burial Customs for Early and Middle Period Chumash Mortuary Contexts in the Santa Barbara Channel Region


This study applies aspects of childhood theory to prehistoric Chumash mortuary sites in the Santa Barbara Channel region of California. While the activities of subadults are often difficult to assess from archaeological contexts alone, the mortuary record provides an ideal avenue in which cultural treatment of different subadult age groups can be observed. Previous mortuary studies conducted in the region have done much to further the collective knowledge of Chumash mortuary customs over time, however, the explicit study of subadults on a broad regional and temporal level was identified as an area in which additional research would greatly enhance our understanding of the prehistoric past. The focus on subadults in this study allows for a nuanced comparison of mortuary treatment in prehistoric Chumash contexts, by both comparing the treatment of subadults (0–17.9 years old) to those of adults (> 18 years old), as well as among the subadult age group, by comparing the treatment of infant (< 3 years old), child (3–9.9 years old), and adolescent (10–17.9 years old) burials. The implementation of childhood theory is a useful framework with which to examine prehistoric burial practice, as it allows for an approach that can be used to connect social and biological aspects of subadults. By focusing on the treatment of subadults in mortuary contexts, this age group can be considered in light of their respective communities, which provides a way to assess aspects of their social identities and can further highlight ways in which subadults would have been active participants in society in regard to economic, social, political, and religious aspects.

The area in the vicinity of the Santa Barbara Channel comprises the study’s general geographic setting, which is located within California’s Southern coast region. More specifically, the study area is defined as the area of the mainland stretching roughly between Arroyo Grande in San Luis Obispo county to Ojai in Ventura county, and extending approximately 15 miles inland from the coast, as well as including both Santa Cruz and Santa Rosa islands in the chain of Northern Channel Islands. The study data are drawn from 16 sites dating to the Early (ca. 6000–1400 BC) and Middle (ca. 1400 BC–AD 1150) periods, which resulted in a dataset of nearly 1,000 burials. The mortuary data that comprise this study dataset are drawn from published sources, as well as unpublished site reports, field notes, excavation records, and collections inventories, which resulted from previously conducted excavations. In order to encompass the broadest number of mortuary categories across the different excavations, 15 variable categories were established to record aspects of the burial context that related to the physical body of the deceased, and also those that related to the objects associated with the body of the deceased. Descriptive, univariate, and bivariate statistical techniques are employed in this study’s analyses to examine the relationships between age, time period, and geographic context for the study’s 15 mortuary variables. The primary statistical tests employed in this study are the Chi-squared and Fischer’s Exact test for nominal variables, and the Mann-Whitney U and Kruskal-Wallis tests for ordinal variables.

This study’s statistical analyses revealed patterns between subadult and adult burials that are believed to indicate aspects of the overall incorporation of subadults into their communities (personhood), as well as aspects of sociopolitical organization (hierarchical and heterarchical), and religious organization (rites of passage). Non-single interment patterns, the presence of grave goods, and number of material types for grave goods provide support for the idea that subadults throughout Chumash prehistory were attributed personhood in their respective communities, given the many shared aspects and overall similarities in burial ritual between subadults and adults. Patterns in ornament grave goods and grave depth appear to have the strongest potential within the study variables to indicate aspects of hierarchical social organization, which were generally more pronounced in the Middle period sample. The body’s overall disposition in the grave (position, side, and orientation), as well as the presence of grave features and burial pigmentation, resulted in patterns that suggest that aspects of heterarchical organization were in operation throughout the Early and Middle periods, however, hierarchical organization appears to have operated more strongly as an organizing factor in the Middle period. Lastly, patterns in presence of ceremonial paraphernalia indicated that both Early and Middle period adolescent burials had the highest frequency of receiving such objects, compared to infant and child burials, which may indicate the relative timing at which religious initiations or rites of passage were undertaken in society.

Based on the different material and non-material aspects of burial practices analyzed in this study, it is evident that the prehistoric Chumash had a high value of human life and also very likely a complex conception of the afterlife. In the majority of the study analyses, subadult burials often revealed similar patterns to adults or even had treatment exceeding that which was commonly seen in adult burials. While there were many temporally specific patterns observed between subadult and adult burials for aspects of prehistoric Chumash burial treatment, the increased homogeneity in many aspects of burial practice evident in the Middle period sample is likely significant at the wider, regional level, revealing patterns in shared cultural practices. The patterns observed diachronically for the treatment of subadult and adult burials support the idea that a fairly complex sociopolitical organization with a degree of centralization was present at least by the Middle period, that aspects of heterarchical organization likely were concurring throughout the Early and Middle periods, and that through all periods of Chumash history subadults were attributed personhood.

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