The Persistence of Local Culture in the Face of Colonialism: A Humanistic Perspective

by Helen Pearson

decorative image

The traditionally held view of indigenous peoples and cultures having been destroyed in the wake of colonial powers is challenged in this assessment of three bioarchaeological case studies from a humanistic perspective. The studies show examples of indigenous peoples who resisted the foreign imperial powers who oppressed them. The case studies also demonstrate a level of syncretism – a mixing of indigenous and colonial ideals – that go against the easy assumption that indigenous people either practices outright resistance or complete submission.


There is a widespread traditional belief that the majority of historical and archaeological evidence demonstrates a trend of people having their lands taken over by imperial powers and their culture assimilated, appropriated, or downright destroyed by the oppressive hand of the colonizers (Rowe, 1957; Stojanowski, 2005). Imperial powers are seen as having displaced native groups without any regard to cultural nuances and imposing religious beliefs on a population that was once steeped in perhaps thousands of years of religious history and tradition. Colonized peoples often can be viewed as fitting somewhere within a scale with two extremes of either outright resistance or total assimilation into the imperial way of life. Often, it can be understood that the choice for those whose lands were being colonized was, “allegiance, assimilation, or resistance” (Torres-Rouff, 2008). There are many degrees between the two extremes, and there has been archaeological research demonstrating that most people existed somewhere between the two. Those individuals who found themselves in between assimilation and resistance lived complex lives unlike any of their ancestors before them or their descendants to come (Torres-Rouff, 2008; Wrobel, 2012). These people found themselves at the intersection of their inherited culture and the future as set before them by whatever colonial power was at hand, and some responded with violence while others chose more subtle forms of resistance. While examining three cases studies, I will demonstrate the complex relationship between native ideologies and colonial pressures through the humanistic perspective by highlighting the experiences of individuals and groups who endured during imperial colonial expansion.

The humanistic approach to bioarchaeology proves its cruciality in the stories that it can be used to tell about the people whose lived experiences would not be told otherwise (Stojanowski and Duncan, 2015). The humanistic approach often employs a narrative approach, considering every bit of evidence from an individual’s burial to attempt to understand that person’s experiences in life and death. Bioarchaeologists can use different bones and tooth growth to understand stages in an individual’s growth and development, and therefore create a life history of that individual (Roksandic and Armstrong, 2011). This approach often provides a narrative to help understand how an individual or group’s experiences in life are represented on their bones and what that says about the culture in which they lived.

decorative image

Burial context is crucial to this approach, for “Graves are deliberate spaces in which individual, group, and ethnic identities can be crafted and projected” (Torres-Rouff, 2008, 325). Graves are a place for people to provide others with a story about who the individual they are interring was – their place in family, society, etc. As bioarchaeologists, we get to examine the story behind the burial and the bones within it, all to uncover a narrative about that person’s lived experience. Within the context of colonialism, a humanistic approach can be exceedingly useful in attempting to understand the lifestyles both of the indigenous peoples and the imperial colonizers. Often, assimilation and syncretism can seem entirely at odds with methods of resistance to colonial pressure, but the evidence of a mixture of the two is abounding (Torres-Rouff, 2008; Wrobel, 2012). Local populations under colonial pressure have to make decisions as to how they are going to respond, and those responses are evidenced in their burials and mortuary contexts just as much as they are in the lifestyles of individuals (Binford, 1971).

Case Study: Gabriel D. Wrobel (2012)

Patterns of religious syncretism and resistance can go right alongside one another, as was demonstrated in Gabriel D. Wrobel’s 2012 study of two indigenously Mayan individuals who lived during the Spanish colonial era in Belize. The two individuals examined by Wrobel were both young adult males based upon analyses of dental attrition and tooth eruption. These two men were ethnically Mayan and died sometime between 1520 and 1660, according to Accelerator Mass Spectrometry data of long bone fragments. Wrobel and colleagues gathered that they were of relatively high social status, based upon evidence that they were buried wearing copper rings and adorned by jade beads, as well as having been wrapped in burial shrouds held together by a copper needle. Neither individual showed evidence of trauma or pathologies that would have led to their relatively early deaths, so the causes of their deaths remain a mystery.

All of this evidence provides a general picture of the kind of lives that these two young men would have lived, but their mortuary context tells us even more. They were buried in a palace tomb within the Classic period Mayan city of Chau Hiix, which had not been occupied for more than 400 years. There is evidence that this site was used as a ceremonial center, but these two individuals were the first to be buried in this particular palace tomb in a significant amount of time. This palace tomb was the site of burials dating back to the Classic Period of the Maya, when Chau Hiix was still an occupied city and not just a ceremonial center. The men were buried on their backs with their hands crossed on their pelves with their heads pointing east. This orientation is uniform with colonial-period burials and shows a degree of religious syncretism and uniformity with the Catholic practices that the Spanish were placing upon the local population of Belize. The orientation is Spanish, but the location is entirely Mayan. It is likely that the people who buried these two individuals did so as an act of resistance to colonial presence or as an act of following local traditions. Either way this burial was an act of subversion to Spanish rule. The individuals were likely members of a population that lived twenty kilometers west of Chau Hiix, signifying the importance and intentionality behind this burial (Wrobel, 2012). This was not a burial of convenience.

The placement of these young men was intentional, and so was their orientation in the Spanish-Catholic style. These two burials in particular shed light on a more complex narrative than neither Spanish monks nor Mayan traditionalists would likely be comfortable. The Catholic orientation of both individuals points to an adoption of the religious teachings of Spanish monks, while the context of the burial within a traditional Mayan ceremonial center demonstrates a clear and conscious resistance to Spanish colonial rule (Wrobel, 2012). The traditional use of the palace tomb in Chau Hiix as an ancestral, ceremonial burial ground demonstrates the persistence of at least one native Mayan practice, even during the intense period of Spanish colonization of Belize. The merging of traditional burial contexts with religious syncretism in the form of the burial orientation provides us with an understanding of just how muddied these indigenous-colonizer cultural relationships were. When examining this burial, it is important to note that the context and mortuary style are reflective of the community that buried these individuals.

The contexts and contents of burials demonstrate “choices made by those preparing and interring the deceased” (Baitzel & Goldstein, 2014, 52). Individuals do not bury themselves, so the complex merging of ideologies went beyond the two young men buried and extended at least to the community that participated in their burials. This was a community that went against the norms of colonial rule and took these two individuals twenty kilometers west of their homes in order to show their active resistance. The community that refused to allow these young men to be buried in the normal condition as set up by the Spanish were demonstrating their resistance while adhering to some of the colonial burial practices, further complicating their experience. Within this study, Wrobel (2012) draws attention to the complex relationship between native and foreign ideologies, focusing in on two individuals whose mortuary contexts leave us with a narrative of people who have not forgotten their ancestral ways but have also adopted new traditions.

Case Study: C. Torres-Rouff (2008)

Another case study that sheds light on the complex relationships between foreign powers and local traditions is Torres-Rouff’s 2008 analysis of the influence the powerful Chilean polity of Tiwanaku on the inhabitants of the San Pedro de Atecama oases in Tiwanaku’s far periphery. Torres-Rouff explores the presence or absence of Tiwanaku influence within the context of mortuary goods, preparation, and orientation. To the Atecameno, Tiwanaku was a wealthy foreign power that exercised authority in trade relations. Atecama was on the periphery of Tiwanaku’s widespread region of influence within the Bolivian altiplano. In seeking to understand the exchange and influence of cultures, Torres-Rouff focuses on how deeply mortuary context creates and sustains a group identity. Specifically with this case study, Torres-Rouff hypothesized that, while examining mortuary context, she would find one of the two extremes of either assimilation or resistance. Either the local Atecameno people would assimilate to the foreign power of the Tiwanaku in the form of adhering to the Tiwanaku burial practices, especially in those burials of elites, or the Atecameno would practice resistance to this foreign power in the persistence of local traditions in that graves would be prepared and oriented in the traditional manner, with only local grave goods. As we have seen in the case of the burials in Chau Hiix, neither of these extremes were reflected in the excavation and analysis done by the researchers.

The burials in the Atecameno cemeteries were prepared in the traditional manner upheld throughout prehistory – pit burials with one or more flexed individuals wrapped in multiple layers of tunics and surrounded by grave goods (Torres-Rouff, 2008). None of the graves in either of the cemeteries in which Torres-Rouff excavated deviated from this style. The traditional Atecameno style of burial persisted throughout the period of Tiwanaku influence. This, however, may not point to outright resistance. Both cemeteries included burials with grave goods of foreign origin with Tiwanaku manufacturing and iconography. Almost all of the burials included these Tiwanaku goods. Four of the burials had non-Tiwanaku foreign goods – ornate grave objects that did not display Tiwanaku iconography or manufacturing. The presence of Tiwanaku and other foreign-made grave goods points to an emphasis on trade that extended its importance into the funerary ritual. When constructing one of these individual’s life history, Torres-Rouff found that this fifty-year-old male was not born in the Atacama but was welcomed into Atecameno society and was given a traditional burial (Torres-Rouff and Knudson, 2007). This individual’s life narrative points to an Atecameno who were welcoming of foreigners and outsiders – not abrasive or exclusionary when it came to relating to foreigners. If these Atecameno remains fit the model of outright resistance, Torres-Rouff hypothesized that there would be a significant percentage of individuals whose deaths could be traced to violent combat. If these Atecameno people were truly resisting to the pressures of the Tiwanaku, then there would be a heightened number of injuries to the skeletal remains to suggest so. When examining remains from the two cemeteries, however, Torres-Rouff found that there was not enough evidence of violent injury to point to a coordinated and violent resistance to the Tiwanaku. Traditionally, Atecameno people practiced cranial modification and used labrets – lip plugs, so Torres-Rouff examined the remains for these as well. Labrets were found of varying shapes in many of the caves, and these labrets resulted in abrasion of the dental enamel that is obvious alongside the artifact of a lip plug (Torres-Rouff, 2007). She found that both the rate and the degree of cranial modification was increased during the period of Tiwanaku influence. These manners of body modification and adornment were deep in the traditions of the Atecameno people’s culture. This continuation of traditional methods of Atecameno head shaping and lip plugging demonstrates an attempt to strengthen and solidify a traditional group identity of the Atecemeno.

Torres-Rouff’s findings indicate a complex relationship between the Atecameno and the Tiwanaku. The Atecameno burials maintained local traditions of preparation and orientation but included foreign, often Tiwanaku, grave goods. There was an absence of widespread violent trauma, and the traditional methods of cranial modification were upheld by the Atecameno people. Rather than point to outright resistance or complete assimilation, “the data present a varied and dynamic reaction to Tiwanaku influence – one that was measured and reflected in local traditions as well as in the body” (Torres-Rouff, 2008, 335). This relationship was individualized – with each set of grave goods and presence or absence of cranial modification differing between individuals. The persistence of the traditional Atecameno burial patterns points to a communal identity that was not lost throughout the period of Tiwanaku influence, but this identity was certainly shaped by the presence of the Tiwanaku, as evidenced in the presence of grave goods with Tiwanaku iconography. Once again, the relationship between local traditions and foreign influences proves to be more complex and varied than one would suppose upon first inspection.

Case Study: M. S. Murphy, Gaither, C., Goycochea, E., Cock, G., & Verano, J. W. (2010)

While Torres-Rouff’s 2008 analysis yielded no evidence of organized violent combat, Murphy et al. conducted a 2010 study of two cemeteries dating to the Spanish contact period in Puruchuco-Huaquerones, Peru that gave evidence both of a transition in burial patterns and a period of violent conflict during an attempt at colonization and pacification (Murphy et al., 2010). The period of Spanish contact and colonization in the New World is known mostly though records left behind by monks or conquistadors, all with motives of the glorification and continuation of Spanish wealth and Catholicism’s growth (Rowe, 1957). The ethnohistoric records left behind by monks and viceroys tell of Spanish military victory and structural progress, but cases of actual violent trauma by Spanish weapons from this period are hard to find in the bioarchaeological record. Murphy and colleagues studied graves from a site in Puruchuco-Huaquarones, Peru to look for violent trauma to see if there was evidence in these burials of the kinds of violence of the sort to which the ethnohistoric documentation points.

Murphy and colleagues found what they believe may be the first evidence of violent conflict between Spanish forces and indigenous populations in Peru (Murphy et al., 2010). Violent trauma was present in a number of burials from both sites. In both of the two cemeteries studied, there was a higher percentage of males with perimortem trauma than females, pointing to an existence of an all-male warrior class and an active military. Several individuals exhibited trauma consistent with European weapons, including European firearms. There were also a number of individuals that suffered from blunt force trauma, likely from native weapons such as clubs. This points to the way in which the Spanish aligned themselves with indigenous enemies of specific polities and states in order to bring them down more effectively (Rowe, 1957). In one of the two cemeteries, many of the burials that exhibited perimortem trauma were buried in an atypical fashion, indicative of a rushed burial wherein the survivors did not take the time to complete the complex wrapping preparations for burial.

There were also a number of burials in what Murphy and colleagues refer to as an intermediate condition. These were consistent with neither the traditional Late Horizon period burials nor the later Christian-style burials that were popularized after Spanish colonization. These intermediate burials came after the Late-Horizon style of elaborate preparation, grave goods, and specific orientation. This style of burial led Murphy and his colleagues to understand that this period of violence between indigenous groups and Spaniards was also one of transitioning from traditional burial practices to Spanish Catholic burials. The intermediate burials were done more quickly than traditional burials and had fewer elaborate grave goods.

The people who lived through the Spanish contact period in Incan Peru saw two vastly different cultures come up against one another in violent combat, and the ramifications of those conflicts shaped the indigenous relationships to Spanish occupiers for centuries to come. These adult men and women who were analyzed by Murphy and colleagues probably were old enough to remember a time before Spanish contact, when the Incan empire ruled the Andes. These people saw a foreign regime come in and force their hand against the empire, and they watched as their traditional adversaries in war aligned with the Spanish against them (Rowe, 1957). The change in burial practices is indicative of the sudden and shocking halt to native mortuary patterns out of sheer necessity to quickly bury the dead before the Spanish returned with their firearms. In this instance, we see a foreign imperial power violently colonizing a region and wiping out their burial practices. The persistent ideology in this case was neither that of the Inca or the Spanish – it was one of wartime. The cemeteries examined by Murphy and colleagues are populated by a sizeable percentage of people who died during war with the Spaniards, and so their burials were rushed or simply incomplete when held to traditional standards (Murphy et al., 2010). This is an example of violent colonization that shatters preexisting heritage and tradition in the wake of warfare.

decorative image


Within these three case studies—Wrobel 2012, Torres-Rouff 2008, and Murphy et al. 2010—the relationships between indigenous peoples and colonizers were demonstrated as highly complex. In both the Wrobel 2012 study of the post-colonial Mayan burials and the Torres-Rouff 2008 analysis of Atecama oases cemeteries, the ideologies and norms that persisted came from both the traditional local people and the imperial influencers. The individuals from Chau Hiix were buried in a context and style that showed a mixture the Mayan culture and colonial Spanish practices. The mortuary contexts of Atecameno people living under Tiwanaku influence reflected a similar mixing of traditional and imperial burial goods while also demonstrating an intensification of traditional body modifications. In both of these cases, indigenous ideologies persisted while concessions or exchanges were made as well with the imperial colonizing culture. The Murphy et al. 2010 case study shows a different side of indigenous-colonial interaction – one that was based in violent conquest. The quick transition of burial practices highlights the speed with which these indigenous people had to adapt to survive Spanish conquest. All three case studies provide insights into the lived experiences of people whose lives were altered by imperial expansion.

The relationships between foreign imperial powers and indigenous peoples are complex and multifaceted in every case I have discussed. Colonization was a part of these native people’s lives that shaped the way in which they lived, died, and buried their dead. The experiences that people lived during periods of colonization reflect a mixture of ideologies in their burial practices, religious syncretism, and continuation of traditional ways of life. When two cultures come into contact with one another, the results are complicated and reflect the intricacies of human interaction. In these case studies, we saw colonialism heighten the intensity of culture contact, but the native ideologies and norms more or less persist, even through this period of intense change.


Baitzel, S. I., & Goldstein, P. S. (2014). More than the sum of its parts: Dress and social identity in a provincial Tiwanaku child burial. Journal of Anthropological Archaeology, 35, 51-62.

Binford, L. R. (1971). Mortuary practices: Their study and their potential. Memoirs of the Society for American Archaeology, 25, 6-29.

Murphy, M. S., Gaither, C., Goycochea, E., Cock, G., & Verano, J. W. (2010). Violence and weapon-related trauma at Puruchuco-Huaquerones, Peru. American Journal of Physical Anthropology, 142, 636-649.

Roksandic, M., & Armstrong, S. D. (2011). Using the life history model to set the stage(s) of growth and senescence in bioarchaeology and paleodemography. American Journal of Physical Anthropology, 145, 337-347.

Rowe, J. H. (1957). The Incas under Spanish colonial institutions. The Hispanic American Historical Review, 37, 155-199.

Stojanowski, C. M., & Duncan W. N. (2015). Engaging bodies in the public imagination: Bioarchaeology as a social science, science, and humanities. American Journal of Human Biology, 27, 51-60.

Stojanowski, C. M. (2005). The bioarchaeology of identity in Spanish colonial Florida: Social and evolutionary transformation before, during, and after demographic collapse. American Anthropologist, 107, 417-431.

Torres-Rouff, C., & Knudson, K. J. (2007) Examining the life history of an individual from Solcor 3, San Pedro de Atacama: Combining bioarchaeology and archaeological chemistry. Revista de Antropologia Chilena, 39, 235-257.

Torres-Rouff, C. (2008). The influence of Tiwanaku on life in the Chilean Atacama: mortuary and bodily perspectives. American Anthropologist, 110, 325-337.

Wrobel, G. D. (2012). Mortuary evidence for Maya political resistance and religious syncretism in colonial Belize. In Stodder, A. L. W., & A. M. Palkovich (Eds.), The Bioarchaeology of Individuals. Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida.

Citation style: AJPA

. . . . . . . . . . Return to the Table of Contents.

Leave a Reply