Mercury, Mitayos, and the Violence of the Everyday: The Bioarchaeology of the Santa Bárbara Mercury Mines in Huancavelica, Peru (16th-19th centuries CE)
Proctor, Terren Kimberly
This dissertation evaluates how unequal power structures generate a form of structural violence that becomes embodied by people who live within them, and explores how historical narratives of the colonial experience have obfuscated the realities of the Indigenous experience of colonialism. In the 16th century, Spain emerged as a formidable economic power by draining its colonies of natural resources—primarily, silver. The silver overexploitation required the Spanish to introduce a refining method that used plentiful amounts of mercury; this was secured through the forced labor of Indigenous people. Through a case study of a Colonial Period (16th – 19th c.) mercury mine at Santa Bárbara in Huancavelica, Peru, I use a social bioarchaeological approach to investigate how the lives of Indigenous laborers were impacted by colonial policies in the Spanish mining economy, and how these experiences were structured along social identities of gender, age, and race. To address these research questions, I directed excavations at Santa Bárbara, Spain’s largest mercury source in the Americas and analyzed the recovered human remains. I reconstructed life experiences of individuals who labored in the mines, examining violence-related skeletal trauma, skeletal indicators of physical labor, and stable carbon and nitrogen isotope data to reconstruct diet. I analyze those three major categories of data by integrating theories of embodiment and structural violence to understand how oppressive power structures shaped the lives of the Santa Bárbara Indigenous laborers. My data show high frequencies of cranial trauma (22%), demonstrating that direct violence was ubiquitous across the population. The study of osteoarthritis and enthesopathies reveal that they engaged in strenuous, long-term labor regardless of age or sex; children were clearly involved in this hard, physical labor. The stable isotope data show that diet across the population varied, but that variation was unrelated to sex, age, exposure to violence, or childhood physiological stress. The lack of differentiation in trauma, skeletal stress from physical labor, and diet suggest that the colonial practices were strongly shaped by other socio-political frames: namely, the emergence of race-thinking, which naturalized the exploitation and destruction of Indigenous people living within the Viceroyalty.