A fisherman’s dog dug up a thousand-year-old corpse (above) near Camarones Cove; his master posed it like a macabre sun worshiper. By the time this individual died, the Chinchorro had long since abandoned mummification. Instead the climate, the world’s driest, preserved the body, hair, and clothing, along with human bones from countless other burials along the shore.
“Marvin, look at this head!” I pointed to a break along the jagged natural sutures of a skull so young that it had not knitted tightly together. I gently lifted the skull sections. They disengaged easily, confirming that someone before me had forced the cranium apart, as if prying open an orange. Packed inside the cavity, in place of the brain, was a wad of dry grass and reeds.
For me that moment stands out as sharply as the date it occurred: October 25, 1983. Under the guidance of Marvin J. Allison, an anthropologist then at the University of Tarapacá’s archaeological museum in Arica, Chile, I was embarking on my first examination of a Chinchorro mummy.
The Chinchorro (named in the 1960s for a beach in Arica where similar mummies had been found) were prehistoric fisherfolk who lived in scattered villages along the desert coast of Chile and Peru.
The tiny body lying on the table in front of me was that of an infant no more than a few months old. Covering its face was a black painted mask distinguished by a pug nose with incised nostrils, beady eyes, and a puckered mouth. The baby had just been exhumed from a grave in Arica, having slumbered there for 5,000 years.
To the Chinchorro, deliberate preservation of their dead through mummification appears to have been a deeply religious act—a study in devotion. They likely believed that mummies were the bridge between the world of the living and the supernatural realm of the dead. What makes the Chinchorro so remarkable is the elaborate way in which they prepared their loved ones for the hereafter.
Karen Wise of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, who is excavating a cemetery at Ilo, Peru, puts it this way: “Chinchorro mummies are one of the wonders of Andean archaeology and of mortuary studies anywhere in the world.”
Mention the word “mummy,” and you’re bound to evoke thoughts of ancient Egypt and the glittering tombs of pharaohs. Yet the Chinchorro people had been immortalizing their dead fully 2,000 years before mummification emerged in the Nile Valley. The earliest radiocarbon date obtained for a Chinchorro mummy, a child from a site in the Camarones Valley about 60 miles south of Arica, is 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.
Whereas the Egyptians considered only kings and other exalted citizens worthy of mummification, the Chinchorro accorded everyone in the community, regardless of age or status, this sacred rite. Infants—and even fetuses and newborns—received the same meticulous attention as adults.
It took me hours to examine the masked baby, even though its legs were missing, so I can only imagine how much time and effort went into making this black mummy.
First a mortuary assistant would have cleaned and eviscerated the corpse and detached the head. Using a stone knife, he (or possibly she) removed the skin, flesh, and organs, including the eyes, but ignored the hands and feet—too tricky to work on. After cutting into the skin, he probably rolled it back, much as one might take off a sock. He set the skin aside for reuse, perhaps soaking it in seawater to keep it soft and workable.
Not all bodies were necessarily cleaned by hand. Some may have been left to decay in one of the swampy hollows in Arica; given enough time, birds and insects would have done an immaculate job of picking the bones clean.
Having opened the baby’s skull, he removed the brain. Most Chinchorro mummies have intact skulls, so the usual practice must have been to scoop the brain out through the foramen magnum, the hole at the base of the head. He may have buried the brain, along with the eyes and other organs, or just discarded it.
Now for the creative part. An expert artisan, most likely with help from an assistant, filled the skull cavity with straw (ash from the hearth was sometimes used as a filler as well). He lashed the cranium to the lower jaw with cords of tortora reeds, all-purpose plants with edible roots. A straight stick braced the spine and acted as a hitching post for the skull. Around this stick he wound a reinforcing “neck” of reeds. The baby’s leg bones would have been secured to the trunk with sticks extending from the ankles to the chest.
The artisan bulked out the skeleton, and stabilized it further, by tying twigs and reeds to the bones. To regain lost volume in the trunk, he stuffed the chest cavity with grass and a paste made of ash, water, and a protein binder such as sea lion blood, bird eggs, or fish glue. Much of the body was covered with this light gray paste, which in addition was used to model the sexual organs.
With the care of a potter, the artisan coated the front of the skull with a layer of paste, which hardened into a mask. He sculpted a nose and made neat elliptical incisions for the eyes and mouth.
Many Chinchorro mummies have an O-shaped mouth reminiscent of Edvard Munch’s painting “The Scream.” One explanation is that the artisans failed to tie the skulls tightly enough to close the mouth, which would have fallen open in death. Or maybe this was a deliberate practice, to give the face character and make the person seem to come alive. (“The Scream,” it turns out, was inspired by the expression on a natural Andean mummy in a Paris museum.)
Reattaching skin restored the human look, as did a short wig of human hair pasted to the skull. Inevitably shrinkage occurred after skinning; if the artisan came up short, he patched the gaps with animal skin.
Having thus rebuilt the body into a rigid, durable, and convincingly human form, he added the final, glorious touch: a coat of black manganese paint.
One villager—it might have been the same person who cleaned the baby’s bones—combed the beaches for powdery black sand, collecting it in a gourd or leather pouch. Using a crude mortar and pestle (several were found in the cemetery), he ground the sand up finely and added water. The artisan applied this liquid with a brush made of fine blades of grass. When dry, the paint had a dull finish, so the body was buffed to a high sheen with a smooth piece of wood or possibly a wave-worn pebble.
We owe the discovery of this Chinchorro mummy to the Arica water company. Workers had been digging trenches for new pipes in the sandy bluff known as El Morro that looms over the town. Three feet or so below the surface they hit upon a cemetery filled with mummies. When the construction supervisor asked staff members from the university’s Archaeological Museum of San Miguel de Azapa to come to the site, we did not expect to find anything out of the ordinary. By then we had become expert at exhuming bodies that had dried out naturally and been preserved, like insects in amber, in their parched resting-places beneath the Atacama Desert.
This time we got the surprise of our lives—elaborately reconstructed bodies. What the water company crew members had unearthed back in October 1983 was exquisite evidence of the oldest system of artificial mummification in the world.
To preempt the inevitable looters, Vivien Standen and Guillermo Focacci, archaeologists and colleagues of ours at the university, worked feverishly to rescue the mummies. From an area roughly 75 feet square they raised 96 bodies, all buried in extended positions, lying on their backs.
Most were well preserved, and a few, extraordinarily so; some, however, had been damaged by later prehistoric burials in the cemetery. El Morro also produced a bonanza of artifacts, from fishhooks and lines to harpoons and atlatls. These goods were distributed evenly among the graves—another sign of Chinchorro egalitarianism.
Over the next two years Marvin, Vivien, and I documented every detail about the mummies, from head to foot, in an effort to figure out what went into making them. In studying the bodies themselves, we made some remarkable discoveries: the earliest evidence, for instance, of an occupational disease in the Americas and proof of osteoporosis in Chinchorro women.
Now, as a professor of physical anthropology at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas, I am devoting myself to learning more about the origins and daily lives of these time travelers of the Atacama coast.
They first came to light in 1917, when Max Uhle, a German archaeologist working in an area adjacent to El Morro, exhumed several extraordinary-looking bodies. They were mummies meticulously created by people belonging to the Chinchorro culture. Some archaeologists argue that the term Chinchorro should apply only to those coastal people who practiced the art of artificial mummification. But I prefer to include their forebears, who lived in the same coastal villages but were not yet mummifying their dead.
So far a total of 282 Chinchorro mummies have been removed from burial sites along the narrow coastal strip from Ilo in southern Peru to Antofagasta in northern Chile. Of these, 149 were created by Chinchorro artisans, and the rest were the work of nature.
If, as it now seems, the Arica-Camarones area represents the bedrock of the Chinchorro culture, then the cemetery at El Morro is its mother lode: No other site in the region has yielded a larger or better preserved collection of artificial mummies.
Until recently Chinchorro mummies remained obscure, largely because the archaeologists who found them were more interested in artifacts than bodies. In my experience people associate South American prehistory with one group—the Inca. Let us also picture the Chinchorro, whose spiritual beliefs dictated that a person’s transition to the world beyond could never be left to luck.
When I was a youngster growing up in Coltauco, a small town in the vineyard country south of Santiago, my father used to regale me with stories about the dry north, where he had once worked for a British company mining nitrate. Places like Arica were a world beyond, exotic destinations far removed from the Chile I knew. When applying to college, I chose the University of Tarapacá, which is as far north as you can go if you want to receive a science degree and still be in Chile.
In Arica, ancient remains are as common as casinos in Las Vegas, so when a part-time job—and the chance to earn extra money—came up in the Museum of Azapa, I jumped at it. I became so immersed in the work that after graduating I stayed on at the archaeology museum as a full-time research assistant. Mummies have preoccupied me ever since.
“Arica,” says Guillermo Focacci, “is a cemetery of past cultures, one layer on top of another, going back literally hundreds of generations.”
If you drive north from Santiago, you’ll understand why people clustered in spots like Arica. The first time I made the trek, I was shocked by the change from the soft greens of Coltauco to the harsh browns and yellows of the Atacama Desert. I shouldn’t have been, for every Chilean knows that the Atacama is the driest place on earth—but experiencing a wasteland is different from imagining one.
Seemingly endless chains of sandy mountains cut me off from the cool ocean washing the shore a few tantalizing miles to the west. In this breathless landscape the only feature that pleased my eye was the occasional defile, green with trees and grasses, cut by one of the valiant streams that tumble from the peaks of the Andes and somehow resist vaporization in the Atacama cooker before surrendering to the Pacific.
These streams make life possible, and wherever they meet the sea—Arica is such a place—life can be easy. Thanks to the cold Peru Current surging up along the Atacama coast, ocean and shore teem with life: anchovies, corbina, and flounder; sea lions; crabs, mussels, clams; seaweeds and sea grasses; pelicans, gulls, and other birds.
I cannot imagine a more inviting niche for prehistoric settlers than these coastal oases. The Chinchorro people, the first humans known to occupy them, arrived at least 9,000 years ago. But from where?
Most likely they started out in the Andean highlands and followed the streams down to the coast. Calogero Santoro, an archaeologist at the University of Tarapacá, found shells and fish bones dating from 10,000 years ago in a rock shelter at 16,000 feet in the mountains east of Arica. So there must have been contact between coastal people and highlanders. Drier conditions at the end of the last ice age may have caused food shortages in the mountains. Hunters would have made forays to the seashore; eventually the abundance of resources lured them there for good.
By 7000 B.C. one group of Chinchorro, perhaps an extended family of about 30 people, had put down roots in Arica. Ivan Muñoz and Juan Chacama, also of the University of Tarapacá, recently obtained almost identical carbon dates for the remains of a naturally mummified individual—named Acha Man for the site—and a nearby cooking hearth. The hearth lay at the center of one of eleven circular stone foundations outlining the dwellings of this oldest documented Chinchorro community.
Such finds have changed our views about prehistoric settlers along the Pacific coast. They were not, as was previously believed, hunters and gatherers who migrated over great distances. Rather, they stayed put in permanent fishing villages.
With food and fresh water always at hand, the Chinchorro had some time and energy to spare. They used it to care for their dead. Living in one place meant they could establish cemeteries and hold religious ceremonies surrounding death, and mummification became an enduring expression of their beliefs.
The baby whose skull had so intrigued me illustrates the mastery of Chinchorro artisans. It is one of the eight El Morro mummies we found in the black style, which emerged around 5000 B.C. and lasted more than two millennia.
About 2800 B.C., however, black went out of fashion. The religious symbolism of colors may have changed, or possibly black manganese was becoming hard to find. For the next thousand years the preferred medium was red ocher, which is ubiquitous in the rocks near Arica. El Morro contained 27 red mummies.
The mummification process changed too. Although the bodies were still packed with plant material and reinforced with sticks, they were no longer dismembered. Instead the preparer removed the organs through neat incisions that were then sutured with human hair, using a cactus needle.
Another striking difference was in the length of the wig. Strands of black human hair as much as two feet long were bound into bundles with reed cords. The artisan attached these clumps to the back of the head with ash paste, which was later painted red. The effect is that of a motorcyclist whose hair flows out from beneath a shining helmet.
In contrast to their bodies, the faces of these mummies were often painted black. A few red mummies from other sites wore masks of green—the color of oxidized copper pigment.
Three El Morro mummies of the red period were unusual for the way their skin was reattached. All were children, and all had the usual helmets. But, inexplicably, half-inch strips of skin—human as well as sea lion or pelican—had been wrapped like bandages around their trunks and legs, giving them the look of the classic mummy in Hollywood movies.
Having put so much into creating their mummies, the Chinchorro would surely have made the most of them. I believe they felt there was a spirit of reciprocal altruism between the living and the dead: By displaying and caring for the mummies, the Chinchorro secured protection. Food offerings would likely have been made, and close relatives of the deceased may have assuaged their grief by visiting the bodies. This veneration may have gone on for months. Some mummies have several layers of paint, indicating that they were subject to wear and tear and needed periodic retouching.
Mourners may have held the mummy aloft and paraded it around, which would help explain the emphasis on sturdy construction. There may have been another reason: A mummy would need to be robust to survive in the afterlife.
When the grieving finally ended, the mummy was wrapped in a shroud of twined reeds and laid to rest in a shallow grave with a few belongings—a fishing line, a carved wooden figurine, even the beak of a pelican. Mummies were sometimes buried in groups of up to six, possibly family members, lying side by side stretched out on their backs.
Honoring the dead is, of course, at the core of our humanity. But why did the Chinchorro go to such lengths?
In the absence of a written record we find likely clues in the religious beliefs and practices of later South Americans. Sixteenth-century texts refer to huacas—sacred objects that included natural mummies, considered deities by some Andean peoples and said to bestow fertility. The living, who traced their roots through the huacas, kept them clothed and fed.
The Inca themselves, with much pomp, paraded the naturally mummified bodies of their royal rulers during religious festivals—“the beastly act of venerating the bodies of the dead,” wrote the Spanish priest Bernabe Cobo in the 1650s. To the Inca—and presumably the Chinchorro as well—the bodies of the dead linked the living to the supernatural world; preserving the body was essential for the survival of the soul.
Bodily survival along the Atacama coast was not without risk. The Arica-Camarones area is prone to earthquakes and tsunamis, and then, as now, the sea must have claimed lives because of treacherous currents and undertows. The Chinchorro likely viewed natural calamities as supernatural events. They may have believed that by preserving and venerating the victim’s body—their conduit to the supernatural—they could protect themselves from the same fate.
Desire to keep the body of a loved one until the pain of the loss diminished may also have spurred mummification. Some of my colleagues believe it began with the children, and indeed the earliest artificial mummies we have yet found are Chinchorro children. Loss of the young must have been deeply felt—anatomical studies of El Morro mummies show that 24 percent were children who died in their first year of life.
Honoring mummies consoled bereft family members, reinforced the sacredness of kinship, and brought the community together, all of which made life more harmonious.
Gradually, however, beliefs about the afterlife changed. By 1700 B.C. the Chinchorro had adopted a much simpler mummification style, involving only external treatment of bodies. The corpse was just daubed with a protective layer, about half an inch thick, of paste made of sand and fish glue or other binder. At El Morro the two dozen mud-coated mummies must have been interred before their mud shells hardened, because all were cemented into the grave pit.
We can only suppose what triggered this break in tradition. Trade with outsiders may have exposed the Chinchorro to new ideas, or they may have begun to associate decomposing bodies with disease. Whatever the reason, about 1500 B.C. the mud-coated era ended, and with it the practice of elaborate mummification in the Americas. Meanwhile, in distant Egypt, the boy-king Tutankhamun had not yet been born, let alone mummified.
For physical anthropologists mud-coated mummies—largely unaltered bodies complete with organs, bones, and tissue—offer a significant advantage. By studying these remains and the natural mummies, along with artifacts and other evidence from grave sites, we are beginning to paint a picture of life in a Chinchorro community.
“The Chinchorro were masters of the ocean,” says Virgilio Schiappacasse of the National Museum of Natural History in Santiago, who is one of the Chilean pioneers of Chinchorro research. “What impresses me most is their sophisticated tool kit.”
Certainly the fishhooks they carved out of mother-of-pearl are as delicate as they are functional. The iridescent hooks glinted temptingly in the water, doubling as lures. Fishermen also made hooks out of cactus spines. They used stone sinkers and fishing line made of strands of tortora reed intertwined with hair. Divers stored their clams and mussels in reed nets that look much like the ones shell fishermen carry today.
Analysis of the bone chemistry and bowel contents of the mummies shows that the Chinchorro were sustained by the same diet for five millennia. They derived about 75 percent of it from the sea, according to Arthur Aufderheide of the University of Minnesota. Land animals and plants supplemented the daily intake of sea lion meat, fish, shellfish, and seaweed. From bone fragments in refuse areas, we know that the Chinchorro hunted guanaco and deer. Karl Reinhard of the University of Nebraska has identified seeds of wild tomatoes and mint in the bowels of several mummies. Reinhard also reports that 19 percent of the mummies in his survey contained tapeworm eggs—no doubt because the Chinchorro ate their fish raw or only partly cooked.
If stomachaches were a fact of life, toothaches were not. In our collaboration Marvin Allison, Vivien Standen, and I found that the Chinchorro’s teeth had minimal cavities, because seafood is low in the carbohydrates that cause tooth decay. However, their teeth were highly abraded. When they ate shellfish or seaweed, they inevitably also consumed sand, which scoured away plaque but wore down teeth.
In examining the skulls, we saw that many had bean-like bumps in the ear canal, a condition known as auditory exostosis. The bony growths are caused by exposure to cold water. If chronic, as in people who dive repeatedly without ear protection, deafness can result. More than a fifth of the Chinchorro had auditory exostosis; nearly all were adult males, which indicates that harvesting from the sea was men’s work. Even Acha Man, who lived 9,000 years ago, had the telltale bumps, making his the first known case of an occupational disease in the New World.
Eighteen percent of the men whose bones we studied, but none of the women, had fractures in their lower back. Clearly, slips and falls on the rocky coast were another hazard for divers. While not incapacitating, the condition would have caused nagging pain. Spinal arthritis, also brought on by physical stress, affected almost a third of the population, women as well as men.
One in five Chinchorro women suffered from compression fractures of their vertebrae—the result of declining bone density. We usually think of osteoporosis, in which weakened bones collapse under the weight of the body, as a disease of the aged. With the Chinchorro it was different.
Because of the high infant death rate, women must have had numerous children, starting in their teens. Babies grow at the expense of their mother, extracting minerals, such as calcium, and other nutrients from her blood and bones. So consecutive pregnancies, perhaps combined with a low-calcium diet, could have prevented the mother’s bones from regaining their normal mineral content. Her skeleton became brittle, predisposing her to the trauma of spinal fractures.
Giving birth was debilitating, but handling death may have been perilous. Forty percent of Chinchorro people were afflicted with infections on their legs so severe that the bone itself sustained damage, which is how we were able to detect the problem. To me the bone lesions suggest an infection similar to yaws, perhaps caused by contact with decomposing flesh.
Imagine a Chinchorro woman eviscerating a cadaver, when her cranky toddler suddenly demands attention. To quiet the child, she hands him food and wipes away his tears with her unwashed hand.
These troubles aside, the Chinchorro, unlike later agricultural peoples in the region, seem to have been surprisingly healthy. The structure of their skeletons and condition of their bones suggest an average life expectancy of about 25 years. Many adults would have reached their 30s; a few may have made it to their 50s, a long life for anyone in prehistory.
As I see it, theirs was something of a paradise. Although the day revolved around fishing and hunting and occasionally attending to mummies, there would have been time for other activities: teaching children how to make fishhooks, harpoons, and reed mats to cover the small, circular huts; exploring the seashore and its many caves; visiting relatives in the cool mountains.
And I can envision, in the solitude of the night, a Chinchorro storyteller holding his audience spellbound with mythic tales of heroic ancestors. In the midst of this gathering the mummy of a beloved relative gleams in the moonlight, filling the Chinchorro with hope and reassurance by evoking the protective powers of the supernatural.
Now the Chinchorro mummies need our protection. The moment we lifted them out of their underground cocoon, we began exposing them to damage through handling and changes in weather. Many El Morro mummies have deteriorated more in the past decade than in the previous 5,000 years.
Proper storage is costly and difficult. The mummies consist of different materials, which complicates preservation, and are so desiccated that the slightest knock to an arm or leg can break it off. The best solution would be to minimize vibration by housing them in separate containers, insect-proof micro-environments in which light, temperature, and humidity are strictly regulated.
Without such protection one of the most startling archaeological collections in the New World will continue to deteriorate irreversibly—and the power of the Chinchorro mummies to reveal further secrets of our humanity will fade.