Hohokam inheritance laws show in burial practices
Today in this country, if a person dies without a will, the person's property is distributed according to the United States Uniform Probate Code (USUPC)—a set of consolidated and revised laws relating to will and intestacy, and the administration and distribution of estates. Difficult to navigate, in almost all situations in which inheritance is a factor, the services of an attorney specializing in USUPC, and versant in the code specific to the decedent’s state of residence, are required.
The ancient inhabitants of the Tucson Basin may have had the most straightforward approach to inheritance law yet—they buried their relatives in and around their homes. No attorneys needed.
Sometime around 1150 CE, the Hohokam began interring their (generally) cremated dead within and around their homes. Before that time, burial placement was in formal cemeteries located away from residential units.
Why the drastic shift?
In a recent article to be published in the Journal of Arizona Archaeology, Arizona State Museum (ASM) and University of Arizona (UA) researchers believe the new practice may have served to legitimize a person’s right of inheritance within compact Hohokam settlements.
Deceased relatives interred inside rooms, within interior walls, or clustered in or around outside walls of a residence, may have been all the probate code that was needed to claim, legitimize, and perpetuate ownership of structure, land, and resources.
The overly literal and highly symbolic proximity of one’s antecedents formed a direct and unquestionable link from one generation to the next, demonstrating and reinforcing clear lines of ownership.
But, just as today, those lines of ownership and rights of inheritance may not have been limited to kin-based relationships. There is evidence of the formation of “corporate groups,” whose equally strong bonds were also established and reinforced through burial clusters.
The researchers posit that corporate groups were necessary within the highly organized society in order to solidify lines of power or access to “specialists” whose skills would have been necessary to sustain a clan’s way of life and ensure its immediate and future success. Essential societal specialties among the Hohokam might have included irrigation management, hunting skills, ceremonial knowledge, political acuity, ceramic-making abilities, etc.
Mortuary practices doubling as inheritance law are clearly seen at University Indian Ruin (UIR), a Classic period Hohokam platform mound site in the eastern Tucson Basin, at the confluence of Tanque Verde Wash and the Rillito River. Tree-ring dates, 1371–1375 CE, indicate that UIR was among the last platform mound sites still occupied in the Tucson Basin at the end of the Classic period. It appears that the bulk of the occupation dates to the Late Classic period (1300–1450 CE).
Among the cremations studied, individuals of all ages are found with a variety of decorated and plain ceramics, shell ornaments, bone artifacts, and projectile points. While cremation burials dominate the mortuary program, inhumation burials were also standard practice among the Hohokam of the Classic period, but reserved mainly for high-status individuals. Just as with us today, this shows a great deal of complexity in the motivations, functions, and behaviors involved in enacting a death ritual, all based on very specific, individual and familial circumstances.
Recent field work by the ASM/UA team is one of four major excavation campaigns that have taken place at University Indian Ruin:
The full report:
Rachel M. Byrd, James T. Watson, Suzanne K. Fish, Paul R. Fish
Aerial photo of adobe room at University Indian Ruin by Henry Wallace.
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