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Working in the City: An Historical Bioarchaeology of Activity in Urban New Spain

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Abstract

The shifting sociopolitical environment of colonial Mexico City (1521–1821) resulted in a reorganization of labor obligations and opportunities for the city’s inhabitants. Bioarchaeological analysis of skeletal indicators of activity, in combination with historical documentary evidence, provide an avenue for understanding this change in daily-life activities. In particular, the intersection of different aspects of identity results in groups of individuals that shared similar kinds of biomechanical stress that may not have been identified using a traditional methodology of dividing data according to age and sex groups. Additionally, the kind of work a person performed may have had an impact on the social perception of identity in colonial life, which was based more on how a person lived than on physical appearance.

Extracto

El cambiante ambiente sociopolítico de la ciudad de México colonial (1521–1821) resultó en una reorganización de las obligaciones laborales y las oportunidades para los habitantes de la ciudad. El análisis bioarqueológico de los indicadores esqueléticos de actividad, en combinación con la evidencia documental histórica, proporciona una vía para comprender este cambio en las actividades de la vida diaria. En particular, la intersección de diferentes aspectos de la identidad da como resultado grupos de individuos que comparten tipos similares de estrés biomecánico que pueden no haber sido identificados al utilizar una metodología tradicional de división de datos según grupos de edad y sexo. Además, el tipo de trabajo que realizaba una persona puede haber tenido un impacto en la percepción social de la identidad en la vida colonial, que se basaba más en cómo vivía una persona que en su apariencia física.

Résumé

La transformation de l'environnement sociopolitique de la ville coloniale Mexico City (1521–1821) a résulté en une réorganisation des obligations et opportunités de travail pour les habitants de la ville. L'analyse bioarchéologique des indicateurs squelettiques d'activité, en combinaison avec les preuves documentaires historiques, ouvrent la voie à une compréhension de cette évolution dans les activités quotidiennes. En particulier, l'intersection de différents aspects de l'identité résulte en des groupes d'individus partageant des types similaires de stress biomécanique qui n'auraient pas pu être identifiés en utilisant une méthodologie traditionnelle de division des données en fonction des groupes d'âge et de sexe. De plus, le type de travail effectué par une personne a pu avoir un impact sur la perception sociale de l'identité dans la vie coloniale, laquelle se fondait plus sur la manière dont une personne vivait que sur son apparence physique.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    This excavation was part of a larger cultural resource management project associated with the construction of the metro, and excavations of the hospital were limited to the eastern side of the hospital grounds, where the future metro tunnel would be located underneath the present-day avenue Eje Central Lázaro Cardenas. Plan drawings from the mid-18th century identify the official cemetery for the hospital on the western half of the hospital limits, but the excavation area could not be expanded due to modern buildings (Zedillo Castillo 1984).

  2. 2.

    The overall skeletal collection contains a slightly greater number of males than females, and the majority are young or middle adults. There is an overall lack of old adults in the collection, which could be a result of the limited excavation area, infectious diseases disproportionately affecting these portions of colonial society, or a lack of desire by older individuals to seek care at a hospital. See Wesp (2016) for more of a discussion on the creation of hospitals in the Americas and how it may have influenced individual decisions to provide or seek care.

  3. 3.

    Images are 1.25 mm thick slices that were acquired using 200 mA and 100 kV on a GE Discovery J computed tomography machine. These images were then analyzed using the free NIH software ImageJ, <https://imagej.nih.gov/ij/index.html>, and the Moment Macro plug-in provided as a free download by Dr. Christopher Ruff, <http://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/fae/mmacro.html>.

  4. 4.

    There have been a number of recent discussions regarding skeletal indicators of activity and the extent to which bioarchaeologists can identify movements from entheseal changes (Jurmain et al. 2012; Villotte and Knüsel 2013). I conducted three different analyses of skeletal indicators of biomechanical stress to attempt to correct for these issues by comparing multiple lines of evidence. While this article focuses on the results from cluster analyses of only the cross-sectional geometry data, I briefly mention the results from metacarpal radiogrammetry and macroscopic analysis of entheseal changes here to help explain why this particular male did not cluster in the group that might be expected if employing simple male/female divisions.

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Acknowledgments:

I would like to thank Shannon Novak for inviting me to participate in this thematic collection that highlights the important contribution bioarchaeology makes to the field of historical archaeology. This research was financially supported with a dissertation-research grant and a postdoctoral research fellowship from the University of California Institute for Mexico and the U.S., and a summer research grant from the University of California Berkeley Graduate Division. I would like to thank Lourdes Márquez Morfín for access to the HSJN collection and space to conduct this research in the graduate osteology laboratory at the Escuela Nacional de Antropología e Historia. Computed tomography images were acquired with the support of Dr. José Luis Criales and the technicians Jorge López, Oscar Hernández, and Fernando Aguilar at the Grupo CT Scanner Sur medical clinic. My research assistant Elizabeth Hernández provided invaluable support throughout this project, and archival research was possible with the help of Adan Alfonso Palomec Juarez in the Biblioteca “Arqlgo. Ángel García Cook,” Dirección de Salvamento Arqueológico. Finally, I would like to thank Rosemary Joyce and Sabrina Agarwal for their support of this research and María Elisa Velázquez who served as my postdoctoral host at the Coordinación de Antropología in Mexico City.

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Wesp, J.K. Working in the City: An Historical Bioarchaeology of Activity in Urban New Spain. Hist Arch 54, 92–109 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s41636-019-00223-6

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Keywords

  • bioarchaeology
  • New Spain
  • biomechanics
  • labor
  • Mexico City