Even though desolate, Baja California Sur has pearls in its waters. Commonly described as forgotten, and originally thought to be an island by Spanish explorers, the Baja California peninsula contains a rich and well-preserved human history, spanning at least 11,000 years. The southern tip of the peninsula, known by tourists as Cabo San Lucas, was once home to a unique group of hunter-fisher-gatherers, the Pericú.Before these crystal blue waters were invaded by Spanish and American conquistadors, the Pericúes adapted to and exploited this semi-desert xeric shrub ecoregion throughout the Cape Region.
Early descriptions on the ecology and environment of this area are known from at least the 18thcentury, from the accounts of explorers and missionaries. Some of the accounts that standout include: “Notice of California” by Miguel Venegas; “The History of Baja California” by Francisco Javier Clavijero; and, recently uncovered by Miguel León-Portilla, work by Miguel del Barco, “Natural and Chronological History of Ancient California.” According to Mathes, del Barco’s work represents “the most important source published to date on the fascinating era of New Spain expansion.” These historical works are of utmost importance for this research project and is a part of an integral (Boasian) vision of the anthropological approach that we intend to carry out.
The Cape Region is an isolated ecoregion on the southern tip of the Baja California Peninsula, surrounded by the Pacific Ocean, the Gulf of California (or Sea of Cortés), and the barren Sonoran Desert to the north. Even the formation of the southern part of the peninsula was in isolation as this region was once a detached island from the rest of the peninsula about 10 million years ago. Due to its distinct geological history, and retention of barriers on all sides, many plants and animals live in endemic isolation. Thus, an island-like environment has been retained, even with subsequent connection to the peninsula, as the harsh Sonoran Desert hinders gene flow to and from the continental mass.
The dry climate and sporadic fresh water in springs throughout the mountains cannot support large-scale agriculture or horticulture infrastructures in this region. Nonetheless, the marine waters in the Gulf of Cortés and the Pacific Ocean are biodiversity hotspots, offering an abundance of pelagic and benthic marine resources. Pair these marine resources with terrestrial plants and fruits such as: pitaya dulce, cardón, prickly pear, and other terrestrial delicacies (such as deer and sheep), living in the southern peninsula can be quite rewarding.
The Pericúes lived in this isolated region with a unique cultural and biological complex. They used atlatls and fishing instruments that are characterized as “stone age” technology. Despite the seemingly simple material culture, they practiced colorful and intricate funerary rituals that included secondary disarticulation and red ochre staining, known as the “Las Palmas” burial tradition. The nickname, “Las Palmas” comes from the fact that these mortuary bundles holding the skeletal remains were found manufactured with palm leaves. Polygamy was one of the unique characteristics of their social organization, as well as having a distinct language. Their language has been compared with the vocalizations of parakeets, which inspired their name, The Pericus. In contrast to the rest of the inhabitants of the peninsula, the Cochimis and Guaycuras, the Pericu have a unique body type as well. The Pericú are characterized by an extremely narrow and long skull (hyperdolicocephaly), and body proportions similar to oceanic islanders (Rivet 1909). These cultural traditions and biological phenotypes were unique to this region and not seen anywhere else in the peninsula.
It is interesting to note that the recovery of these skeletal remains included a series of historical accounts that have made it possible for us to address a variety of questions. The first documented remains were excavated and recovered for study at the end of the 19th century by Leon Diguet, a French naturalist. Subsequently, Paul Rivet, at the beginning of the twentieth century, recovered another set of osteological and archaeological remains belonging to this ethnic group. Some of these objects are housed in the Museum of Man in Paris, which include, in addition to skeletal remains, some utensils and clothing. During the second quarter of the twentieth century, the American archaeologist William Massey excavated several of the caves in the Cape Region. Originally housed at the University of California, these repatriated remains are now located at the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico.
The abundance of artifacts and records accumulated from these excavations are complemented by a wave of recent research on the prehistory of the Baja California Peninsula. Research on the prehistory of the Baja California peninsula, prior to this, has been generally neglected. Perhaps it is because many researchers interested in Mexican (pre)-history have ignored this region and have concentrated on the vestiges of the Maya, Aztecs, and other monumental cultures of the area. In doing so, northern Mexico, including the Baja California peninsula, has been relatively left out in the reconstructions of Mexican prehistory. Therefore, the authors of this piece are proposing a continuous and integral project that has not yet been systematized. A fundamental element to celebrate and preserve the prehistory of this remote and deserted region is the realization of academic collaborations. Generating synergies, such as the one we are trying to describe here, can help establish a holistic approach for a better understanding of the prehistory of the peninsula.
This effort involves archaeologists, social/cultural anthropologists, and biological anthropologists from the United States, Mexico, and Japan who, through their various specialties, are trying to generate a comprehensive synthesis of the prehistory of the region. Recently, Harumi Fujita, Lucero Gutiérrez, Carlos Mandujano, and others in the Baja California peninsula have revived research in this region, including funding for and prioritizing of archaeological excavations in the Cape Region. Likewise, Juan Manuel Argüelles with Colleen Young and Bernardo Yáñez have reinitiated the bioanthropological study of these interesting prehistoric inhabitants of the peninsula and the continent. Through our collaboration we are combining our abilities, skills, and resources, with the aim of knowing and unraveling some of the invaluable pearls of this peninsula.
The aims of our current research are on the skeletal analysis of the Pericú and the paleobiology of hunter-gatherer development in northern Mexico. Among other research goals, we are matching information collected from craniometric analyses with post-cranial measurements to better understand the skeletal size, shape, and robusticity of these isolated early Amerindians. Our intention is to understand how these individuals interacted with, and adapted to, an isolated environment in the southern Cape Region of Baja California. In this sense, our project is original and innovative, since it does not privilege the information that the skull gives us over what the rest of the body gives us, or vice versa. We are studying the body and skull of these individuals together, viewing them both as integral systems. Generally, bioanthropological studies tend to isolate or disarticulate the body to study its parts in a more practical, but isolated, way. We believe that the above is not only incorrect, but that it is illogical to continue maintaining the classical methodology of specialization in the face of a more integrated approach. Preliminary results of our research will be presented at the annual meetings of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists in Cleveland, OH, this year (2019).
A better understanding on these early, isolated Amerindian individuals is critical for better understanding the peopling of the Americas, and the great diversity of Mexico’s prehistory (primarily of the northern territory). We are grateful for the current support from the National Science Foundation and the National Institute of Anthropology and History in Mexico.