Chapter 4. Body and Soul among the Maya: Keeping the Spirits in Place



The prehispanic Maya are known to have commonly interred their dead beneath the floors or within the platforms of domestic structures. This custom has been interpreted as part of a larger complex of rituals and beliefs associated with ancestor veneration. By continually curating the bones of deceased family members within their own domestic space, the surviving members of the household may have strengthened their rights to material property believed to have been acquired by these ancestors. Maya residences have thus been considered domestic mausolea: “places of death.” However, archaeological interpretations of burial practices should take into account the likelihood of customs and beliefs regarding the proper disposition of the nontangible components of deceased persons along with their physical remains. These components include names and souls, which may have been the property of specific corporate groups who transferred them from the dead to the newly born as an expression of group continuity. Archaeological, historical, and ethnographic evidence from Maya peoples is examined here to suggest that residential interments may have served to ensure control over the souls of the dead. Ancestral spirits were important nontangible property belonging to prehispanic Maya corporate kin groups, known as “houses.” They were carefully safeguarded for reincarnation in subsequent generations, thereby perpetuating the kin group. Rather than a place of death, Maya domestic space is therefore better considered a place of curation, transformation, and regeneration of enduring social personae.