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Ritual Raccoon Volume 54 Number 5, September/October 2001
by Eric A. Powell

[image] Bones of a young raccoon were ritually buried outside a North Carolina slave cabin. (Courtesy UNC Wilmington) [LARGER IMAGE]

While excavating a late-eighteenth-century slave cabin near Cape Fear, North Carolina, Maureen Basedow, an archaeologist at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, unearthed a curious burial. In a pit by the cabin's doorway, someone had carefully interred the remains of a young raccoon.

Basedow thinks it's possible that one or more of the cabin's inhabitants kept the raccoon as a pet. If so, it would be similar to goldfish remains future archaeologists will undoubtedly encounter in the yards of suburban American homes. But she thinks the location of the burial, next to the main entrance of the cabin, probably means the raccoon was more than just a cuddly companion. Available evidence suggests the animal played a role in a ritual with elements borrowed from vastly different cultures.

Basedow notes that in some Native American cultures raccoons are considered sacred because they exhibit humanlike traits, like washing their food. She also notes that in Europe there is a strong tradition of burying animals at the entrances of houses to ward off evil. In West Africa, some cultures bury pots or cache other objects at entrances.

"So you've got an animal that holds special significance for Native Americans being buried in a European ritual manner by West Africans," says Basedow. She thinks it's likely the slaves buried the raccoon by the door to protect the cabin from evil--part of a creolized ritual security system.

© 2001 by the Archaeological Institute of America