A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
November is the Month of the Dead. The deceased were removed from their graves, redressed with rich garments and feathers. They gave the dead food and drink. The people danced and sang with the dead, parading them around the streets.
Missionaries working in Peru following the Spanish conquest were disgusted by the Inka's worshiping the mummified remains of their ancestors. During religious festivals the preserved bodies of Inka lords would be lavishly dressed, publicly displayed, and even given cups of chicha, or corn beer, to toast each other and the living. While such practices were abhorred by the Spanish, they played an integral role in the lives of Andean people for whom death marked not the end of a life but a period of transition during which the souls of the deceased were to be cared for and entertained, easing their passage into the afterlife. In exchange for such hospitality, it was believed that they would intercede with the gods on behalf of the living to ensure fertility and good crops.
The Inka were the last in a long line of Andean peoples to preserve and display the remains of their forebears that began with the Chinchorro, a little known fisherfolk who inhabited a 400-mile stretch of South American coast--from Ilo in southern Peru to Antofagasta in northern Chile--more than 7,000 years ago.
The earliest known mummy, that of a child from a site in the Camarones Valley, 60 miles south of Arica, dates to ca. 5050 B.C. During the next 3,500 years Chinchorro mummification evolved through three distinct styles--black, red, and mud-coated--before the practice died out sometime in the first century B.C.
The black style (ca. 5050-2500 B.C.), was by far the most complex. The body was completely dismembered and reassembled with all but the bones and skin replaced by clay, reeds, and various stuffing materials. A mask of clay incised with small slits for the eyes and mouth was placed over the face to give the body the impression of a peaceful slumber. In a technical sense, a black mummy, with its bone and wood inner frame, intermediate and ash paste layers, and external covering of human and sea lion skin was more like a statue than a mummy, a work of art. Today these mummies are extremely fragile due to the disintegration of the unbaked clay.
About 2500 B.C., black went out of fashion, perhaps reflecting a change in ideology. It is also possible that manganese became scarce. For the next five centuries the bodies were finished with red ochre, which is found in abundance near Arica. The mummification process also changed. The corpses were not totally disarticulated as they were with the black mummies. Instead, the head was removed to extract the brain while neat incisions were made on the arms, legs, and abdomen to remove muscles and internal organs, which were replaced with reeds, clay, sticks, and llama fur. After the body was filled out, incisions were sutured with human hair using a cactus spine needle. The body cavities in many red mummies show signs of burning, suggesting that they had been dried with glowing coals. With the red style also came a change in the sculpting of the clay face masks. Open mouths and eyes convey a sense of alertness rather than sleep. The open mouth may foreshadow the Inka practice of feeding and talking to the ancestors. It may have also served to ease the return of the soul should it wish to reinhabit the body.
By the end of the third millennium, complex mummification had ceased among the Chinchorro and bodies were simply desiccated, covered with a thick layer of mud, and buried.
Wear and tear, especially on the black and red mummies, as well as extensive repairs and repainting, suggest that they may have been displayed in family or communal shrines or used in processions for many years before being interred in groups of four, five, or six individuals, likely related. Few burial goods were placed in the graves, but most objects present were associated with fishing--harpoons, shell and cactus fishhooks, weights, and basketry.
Why did these ancient people go to such extraordinary lengths to preserve their dead? Though we have no written records of the ancient Chinchorro, we believe that their relationship with the dead was much like that of their Inka descendants, the mummies providing that vital link between this world and the next. But these well-preserved remains may have served another purpose as well. We believe that they represent the earliest form of religious art found in the Americas.
It is not surprising that the Chinchorro mummies have not been viewed as works of art, but as an unusual mortuary expression of an early Andean people. In many cultures icons exist as part of propitiation rites rather than as items to be collected. Religious art is then the expression of the believers attempting to reach the gods. The symbolism in religious art is context-specific, often associated with mythical heroes, deities, or ancestors. However, the icon is often not as important as what it represents.
How then do the Chinchorro mummies fit this paradigm of religious art? We see the black and red Chinchorro mummies as art because of the plasticity of their shapes, colors, and the mixed media used in their creation. These statues, the encased skeletons of departed ones, became sacred objects to be tended and revered by Chinchorro mourners.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Chinchorro mortuary practice was the democracy with which it was carried out. In contrast to the Egyptians, who mummified kings and nobility, the Chinchorro show no discrimination in age, sex, or social status in the mummification of their dead. The mummification of children is particularly fascinating, since in cultures throughout the world they receive little if any mortuary attention, especially those who never lived--the stillborn. The Chinchorro seemed to honor all human beings whether they contributed to society or not, paying particular attention to those who never achieved their potential. In the minds of the Chinchorro, life as a mummy may have been viewed as a second chance.
The Chinchorro mummies deserve much more attention than they have received from scholars, not only because they are now the oldest examples of intentionally mummified human remains, but because they are powerful artistic accomplishments of an ancient society.
Bernardo T. Arriaza is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas and an adjunct researcher at the Universidad de Tarapacá, Arica, Chile. He is the author of Beyond Death: The Chinchorro Mummies of Ancient Chile (Smithsonian Institution Press, 1995). Russell A. Hapke, a graduate of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, is director of Branson Illustrations, Co. Vivien G. Standen is a professor and researcher at the Museo Arqueologico San Miguel de Azapa, Universidad de Tarapaca, Arica, Chile. She has extensively studied the Chinchorro mummies of the El Morro-1 site. This research was in part supported by Fondecyt grant No. 1970525 and by National Geographic Society grant No. 5712-96.
Arriaza, B. Beyond Death: The Chinchorro Mummies of Ancient Chile. Smithsonian Institution Press, 1995. In the first book written in English about the Chinchorro culture, the author reconstructs daily life, and challenges our assumption that preceramic cultures had a simple socioreligious life.
Allison, M. "Chile's Ancient Mummies." Natural History 94:10 (1995), pp. 74-81. Describes the events that led to the discovery of the Chinchorro mummies in 1983 and discusses mummification techniques and health.
Standen, V. "Temprana complejidad funeraria de la cultura Chinchorro (norte de Chile)." Latin American Antiquity 8:2 (1997), pp.134-156. Presents a detailed bioarchaeological study of the El Morro-1 site in Arica.
During the nineteenth century, mummies from the Andes were exhibited in Paris, where they inspired European artists to new heights. The crouched position of Inka mummies inspired Paul Gauguin's figures in the famous paintings Life and Death and Eve. The "expression of agony" in them, which is a normal phenomenon, did not escape the eyes of Norwegian artist Edvard Munch, who immortalized the expression in a series of paintings entitled The Scream.