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Mummies and Mortuary Monuments

Central Andean Social Organization

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William H. Isbell. 1997. Mummies and Mortuary Monuments: A postprocessual prehistory of Central Andean social organization. University of Texas Press, Austin. ISBN 0-292-73870-6 (alkaline paper). 315 pages, plus 40 pages of references, and an index.
This book by William Isbell investigates the author's idea of the origins of the Inca social and political system called the ayllu. A fascinating element of the culture, if little known outside of academic circles, the ayllu system is a primarily a kinship-based political organization that formed the basis of the Inca society before, during and after the Spanish colonial period of the 16th and 17th centuries AD.

Isbell believes that the ayllu system--at the moment of Spanish conquest--is best thought of as a group of people who shared a (not necessarily genetic) ancestor, and a resource or set of resources (land, buildings, water access, material goods, information), as a natural inheritance from the ancestor. Each ayllu existed as a social group, with a shared communal resource. Everybody in the group claimed descendancy from a common ancestor, and the closer related you were to the ancestor, the higher status you had in the ayllu.
What the whole ayllu system revolved around, says Isbell, was the ancestor--or to be precise, the ancestor's mummy, who was preserved and kept for various ceremonies, brought out and feted on a regular basis. Isbell's primary argument concerns the dating of the creation of the ayllu; some researchers believe that the ayllu system is very ancient indeed, but Isbell uses material evidence for the ancestor worship--in the evolving form of open sepulchers--to suggest that the ayllu system developed rather late in the sequence. I think, speaking as a nonspecialist, that the interesting part of the book is not whether the ayllu system is ancient or not, so much as the development of the argument itself, and the ultimate realization that "respect for the dead" has about as many meanings and methods as there are people and cultures in the world.
Don't be scared off from this highly informative book by the word "postprocessual" in the subtitle. The glimpse that Mummies and Mortuary Monuments provides into the Inca world of 15th and 16th century Peru is well worth it.

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