Wednesday 9 August 2023

Direct archaeological evidence for the torture and mutilation of Mapuche prisoners during the sixteenth century 'War of Arauco'.

The conflict between the conquering Spanish and the indigenous peoples of the Americas has retained a reputation for particular brutality, even against the wider context of European conquests of non-European peoples. In Chile the conflict between the Spanish and the indigenous Mapuche people lasted for almost three centuries, from 1536 to 1810, a period known as the 'War of Arauco', although this is somewhat of a misnomer, with the 'war' comprising several periods of intense conflict, interspersed with periods of peace. The Mapuche people were able to resist conquest by the Spanish for so long due to their willingness to adopt the tools of their enemies, including firearms, cavalry, and military tactics.

In 1550 the Spanish commander Pedro de Valdivia reported execution and mutilating Mapuche prisoners by cutting off of hands, feet, noses, ears, and breasts, which was a common practice for Spanish leaders of the time (de Valdivia was defeated in battle, captures and executed by the Mapuche three years later). The tactics used by the Spanish in the Americas typically involved capturing political and religious leaders, forcing surrender through torture, and then publicly massacring important members of the community, usually in brutal ways.

Although well documented, little physical evidence for this conflict exists today, due to the humid climate and regular heavy rains of south-central Chile, which are not favourable for the preservation of archaeological remains. Furthermore, many archaeological collections made in the first half of the twentieth century have either been lost or kept so poorly that it is hard to assess their original context. 

In a paper published in the journal Open Archaeology on 19 July 2023, Juan Francisco Reyes Sánchez of the Equipo Chileno de Antropología Forense, and Alberto Enrique Pérez of the Facultad de Ciencias Sociales y Humanidades at the Universidad Autónoma de Chile, present a study of two burials at the Newen Antug archaeological site in Neuquén Province, Argentina, which show evidence of violence likely to have been linked to the conflict with the Spanish. 

The Newen Antug archaeological site lies on the Argentinian side of the Valdivia River Basin, which forms the border between Chile and Argentina, within the Lácar and Nonthué Lake System. The site was first occupied about 880 years ago, and has yielded, amongst other things, the earliest known canoe burial in South America. 

Newen Antug site, on the shores of Lácar Lake, which is part of a binational archaeological site in the Valdivia river basin. The inset shows the stash of Florentine stirrup location and small Spanish fort location. Reyes Sánchez & Pérez (2023).

It this study Reyes Sánchez and Pérez examine two individuals, one female and one male, which date from the second occupation of the site, Both were laid on their right sides with their legs flexed and their arms parallel to their bodies. Their heads (in both cases) have rotated paraventral on their axial axes as a result of the loss of thoracic volume and the resistance of the intervertebral tissues due to compaction of the grave. 

The grave of the female individual has an east-west axis with the body laid facing to the south. The male individual is laid in a grave with a northwest-southeast axis, facing to the northeast. Three clay pots were placed within the grave of the female, decorated in the local Valdivia Red on White Bichrome tradition, and arranged around her head.

Plan of the excavation of the mortuary features of Individuals 1♀ and 2♂ of the Newen Antug site. Reyes Sánchez & Pérez (2023).

The female individual is estimated to have been 150 cm tall, and based upon morphology of the cranial and postcranial skeleton and examination of tooth wear, the to have been over 52 years old. The male is estimated to have been 168 cm high and 30-40 years old. Radiocarbon dating of a piece of charcoal from the grave of the female individual gave a date of 540 years before the present, consistent with the mid sixteenth century, when the first contact (and conflict) between the Spanish and the Mapuche occurred.

The female is missing both hands and the lower part of the left arm, and has as grave goods the calcaneus and astragalus of a Horse (another sign of contact with the Spanish), and a sharpened partial metatarsus of a South Andean Deer, possibly as a replacement for the missing limb portions. She also has a curved transverse fracture on the left ulna, with a regular border, stepped and with crushed edges, and associated with a longitudinal fracture, and an s an incomplete oblique fracture of the medial portion of the humeral diaphysis. The damage to the right left radius is consistent with a spiral fracture, although the preservation of this bone is not good enough to be certain.

The male also lacks the left hand and the lower part of the left forearm, with a spiral fracture on the e medial diaphysis of the left radius, with the broken edge of both the radius and ulna showing signs of crushing and scaling. Another incomplete fracture is present on the right ulna.

Diagram of skeleton, anterior view. Individual 1♀ and Individual 2♂, respectively. The locations of the lesions are shown in red. Reyes Sánchez & Pérez (2023).

The break to the right ulna of the male skeleton is consistent with a 'parry fracture', i.e. a would suffered while defending against a blow, while the left fibula shows signs of a blunt force injury, probably the result of another blow.

The injury to the left humerus of the female skeleton is consistent with a blunt force injury inflicted while the limb was flexed and rotated, while held in position at the upper end. Such injuries elsewhere have been interpreted as signs of torture, i.e. injuries deliberately inflicted on an individual while they are restrained. 

Both individuals have lost the lower part of their left arms, and both show signs of blunt force trauma to the remaining portion of the bones of the lower arm. This is unusual, and blunt-force injuries do not usually remove portions of limbs. While the injuries produced by sharp blades and blunt objects are generally quite different, prior observations have suggested that heavy axe blows can sometimes produce a hybrid injury, both crudhing part of a limb and hacking off the portion below the site of the blow. This appears to be entirely consistent with the injuries to the limbs of both individuals. 

The injuries to these individuals appear quite different to those seen in individuals injured in conflict settings; instead they show injuries consistent with having been brutalised while being tied down or otherwise restrained. 

Prior to contact with the Spanish dismemberment seen in skeletons was consistent with one of two causes; injury in battle, or post-mortem dismemberment for ritual purposes. Notably, in late pre-contact Andean societies, port-mortem dismemberment of bodies to make war trophies was a common practice, as are pre-death blunt force trauma injuries, particularly to the head area, and cuts on the bones of the neck from where the throat was cut.

The arrival of the Spanish in the Americas brought new technologies and practices of injuries to the area. In southeastern North America, the Gulf of Florida, and Peru, this has been shown to manifest in the widespread execution-style killing of both adults and children, pre-death injuries including pre-death blunt force injuries, lessons caused by blunt-sharp blows, and injuries caused by firearms.

Documents made by the Spanish themselves during this period record captured leaders being tied to tree-trunks and tortured by mutilation, who then had their wounds cauterized before being set free, with the intention that they would live long enough to return to their people and display the traumatic injuries, spreading general alarm. This practice appears to have been carried out on a massive scale, with producing large piles of severed limbs and other bodyparts. One notable form of torment was to disarticulate the hand from the forearm, leaving it dangling by a tendon. Notably, such a practice can be achieved without leaving and cuts on the bones, as can other forms of torture known to have been used during the Spanish invasion, which could therefore also potentially have been used on the Newen Antug individuals.

Engravings by Théodore de Bry showing mutilations of hands and noses (bottom) and torture (top) applied by Spanish soldiers to indigenous people in America. Reyes Sánchez & Pérez (2023).

In 1552 and 1553, Spanish troops under r Francisco de Villagra are known to have passed through the Neuquén Andean lake district, engaging in a number of conflicts with the local population, which resulted in heavy casualties on both sides. 

The two individuals buried at Newen Antug appear to have been members of the community held in high regard, who were buried with special care with symbolic artefacts emphasizing their leadership roles. 

Reyes Sánchez and Pérez interpret the injuries suffered by these two injuries as indications that they were taken hostage by the Spanish, and subjected to torture and mutilation whilst restrained, particularly to the left hands and forearms. Both left arms appear to have been struck with sufficient force to split the arm in two, with the injury most likely caused by a blunt axe impacting at an angle of about 45°. These injuries almost certainly lead to the deaths of their victims, but probably not straight away, something consistent with Spanish records of prisoners being tortured and mutilated before being released to spread fear in their communities.

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