Archaeologists excavating the ancient Mesoamerican city of Teotihuacan in the highlands of central Mexico have unearthed the skeletal remains of a woman who is thus far unique in the archaeological record of Teotihuacan. She was buried in the Barrio Oaxaqueño neighborhood, also known as Tlailotlacan meaning “people from distant lands.” Judging from her extensive body modifications, she lived up to the neighborhood’s billing.
The Barrio Oaxaqueño, with a view of the Avenue of the Dead ahead and the Pyramid of the Sun behind, follows one of the streets that goes up the slope of Cerro Colorado. About three kilometers from the main thoroughfare of Teotihuacan, the neighborhood was settled by immigrants from the Oaxaca Valley in the Sierra Madre Mountains of southern Mexico between 150 and 600 A.D. Thirty housing units have been discovered in the neighborhood, each with multiple rooms, plazas, courtyards and tombs, in which an estimated 1,300 people, mainly from Oaxaca, western Mexico and the Gulf of Mexico, lived.
For the past eight years, National Anthropology and History Institute (INAH) archaeologists have been excavating an area of about 800 square meters in the Barrio Oaxaqueño. This year, under the floor of a room, archaeologists found a cist, a rectangular dugout in which the articulated skeleton of a woman and 19 vessels were discovered. The ceramics and stratigraphy indicate she was buried around 350-400 A.D. Osteological examination found she was between 35 and 40 years old when she died.
Her teeth are of particular note. The central incisors in her upper jaw are embedded with round pyrite stones. This technique required cutting a hole in the enamel of the tooth and inserting the decorative stones. It was practiced in the Mayan cities of southern Mexico (see the jade tooth inserts found in Uxul on the Yucatan peninsula), Guatemala and Belize. One incisor in her lower jaw was replaced with a prosthetic made of serpentine, a green stone carved in the shape of a tooth. This was not of local manufacture and she must have worn it for many years because it shows signs of wear and tartar growth. Researchers are currently studying this tooth looking for evidence of how it was affixed to the jaw, possibly with a cement-like adhesive or some kind of fiber that held it in place.
Her grill isn’t the most extreme of her body mods. The shape of her skull is elongated, an intentional cranial shaping of the tabular erect type produced by fronto-occipital compression likely with a cradleboard when she was a child and her bones were still soft. Hers is an extreme example of the practice. This kind of skull shaping isn’t typical of the Central Highlands. It too is more frequently found in the south.
Her teeth and skull make hers one of the most extensively modified bodies ever discovered at Teotihuacan. It also confirms that the residents of Tlailotlacan weren’t only labourers who were brought to or moved to the big city for work, but people of wealth and status as well. The Lady of Tlailotlacan’s modifications were reserved for the Maya elites.
The ongoing excavation of the neighborhood have revealed that there were Oaxacans and other foreigners living in Teotihuacan from the early days of its rise to prominence until its mysterious fall. They moved 400 miles away from home to take advantage of all the great metropolis had to offer, but they maintained their cultural identities within their living quarters. While the neighborhood follows the standard urban planning design of the city, inside their homes residents integrated their native practices. For example, their burial sites were in place before the dwellings were built, as in the case of the Lady’s underfloor cist. They also used ceramics from their hometowns, or if that wasn’t possible, made reproductions using local clay.