Dr. Bernardo Arriaza is associated professor of physical anthropology at University of Nevada in Las Vegas (UNLV). He is also assistant researcher at Universidad de Tarapacá, in Arica, Chile. He holds a PhD from University of Arizona, and in 1992-93 conducted postdoctoral research at the Smithsonian Institution, on prehistoric arthritis. In 1995, he published Beyond Death, The Chinchorro Mummies of Ancient Chile ( Smithsonian Press ) and dozens of articles in scientific magazines. He has been also a scientific advisor to Discovery Channel et National Geographic for various documentaries. His principal domains of interest are paleopathology and bioarchaelogy, both are tools that help to rebuild the health of ancient Andean societies. At UNLV, he has received three distinctions : Outstanding Faculty Member (1996), the William Morris Award for Excellence in Scholarship (1996) and the Barrick Scholar Award (1999). That same year in Chile, the city of Arica gave him the Medal for Professional Merit.
ArtsLivres : In what ways are Chinchorro mummies so special ?
Dr. Bernardo ARRIAZA : Chinchorro mummies are special in various ways. The earliest Chinchorro mummies, anthropogenically made ( i.e. mummification ) go back to 7000 years, thus representing the world earliest attempt known to date to intentionally preserve the dead. Their scientific importance is not limited to their old age : in my book Beyond Death I discuss that their real importance is that these ancient and sophisticated mortuary practices simply contradict our preconceived notions of hunter-gatherer societies' simple way of life, including simplistic socio-political organization and view of the world. Chinchorro mummies are also unique for their artistic craftsmanship : bodies were transformed into statuette-like figures with either bright red or shinny black colors. Last, the very fact that Chinchorro fascination for the dead lasted for so long ( around 3000 years ) is most surprising.
Egyptian mummies have long been part of the collective subconscience, yet while Chinchorro mummies were first scientifically described in 1917 by Max Uhle, they only came to the foreground in the mid 1980s. How do you explain this virtual silence and then their sudden celebrity ?
Well, the Chinchorro did not develop building and cities, and their cultural materials were minimal. People, including archeologists, used to pay more attention to the cultural materials such as ceramics and monumental architecture of ancient societies. But archaeological paradigms have shifted to understanding evolutionary processes and reconstructing the mundane. New radiocarbon dates confirmed that some Chinchorros mummies were well over 7000 year old : the incredible discovery of hundred of Chinchorro mummies in 1983, our emphasis that the Chinchorro needed to be treated as artistic pieces and not just as scientific objects.
From archaeology and modern techniques, what can we infer about the Chinchorro people ?
Who were they and where may they have come from ?
Archaeological record and radiocarbon dating tell that Chinchorro mummification practices were a local phenomenon, developed in the Arica area in northern Chile. We know the Chinchorros relayed heavily on maritime subsistence. Their biological origin remains unclear, but the founder populations migrated from either the coast of southern Peru or from highlands of both present Chile and Peru.
How would you describe their lifestyles ( nutrition, population ) and health ( diseases, morbidity ) ?
The Chinchorro people resemble other ancient gatherer populations, with heavily worn teeth, muscular and strongly built bodies, and high rates of infant mortality. They suffered from chronic ear irritations and impairment due likely to continuous fishing in the Pacific Ocean's cold waters. They also suffered from parasitic infections, due to poorly cooked fish and sea lion meat ingestion. With my colleague Vivien Standen of Universidad de Tarapacá, we found they also suffered from chronic lower leg infections, a type of treponematosis after radiology and skeletal pathology.
They also met with face and arm fractures : many seemed to engage in interpersonal violence. We see more violence than expected and interpersonal conflict. Chinchorro men healed cranial fractures and broken noses, resulting likely from interpersonal conflicts or fist fights. Some females have healed forearm fractures: lifting the arm to stop a blow to the head can certainly produce a parry fracture. Life was far from paradise.
What is known about their technology ?
Their technology was aimed at fishing, collecting plants along river mouths and hunting both sea mammals and wild birds. They made fishhooks out of shellfish, bone or cactus needles, spear throwers were used to hunt sea lions and wild camelids, while both lithic points and knives were manufactured using flint stones. The Chinchorros lacked ceramic vessels, metal objects and woven textiles, but this was not a social handicap : their simple yet efficient fishing technology allowed them to thrive along the Pacific coasts for several millenia…
There are several types of mummies, naturally dessicated ones and four artificial ones : red, black, mud and bandaged ones, all with subtypes. What are their most distinctive attributes and time span ?
There is much variation in their mummification techniques. In order to better understand the evolution of their mortuary practices, I have divided complex Chinchorro mummies ( Uhle's classification) that were extensively prepared and ornamented in three main types : Black, Red, and Bandaged styles.
Simply put, Black mummies represent secondary burials and statuette-like figures. They have an inner reinforcement structure of bones, reeds, sticks, and clay, and an external surface of skin and manganese paint. Facial features were reconstructed or insinuated, with a short wig added to the head.
By contrast, Red mummies were stuffed, with a stick for internal reinforcement, after Chinchorro morticians made incisions to deflesh the body and removed internal organs. Thus, soils, grasses and feathers were used to fill the cavities in an attempt to recover the lost volume. Externally, the bodies were painted bright red from head to toes, except the face that was painted black or brown. A long wig up to 60 cm was used to ornament the head. Facial features were modeled to convey life resembling the scream of E. Munch.
Bandaged mummies are a variation of Red mummies : their bodies were painted red, apparently defleshed with the skin placed back in bandages.
Black mummies cluster around 5000-3000 BC, while the Red and Bandaged cluster around 3000-2000 B.C. Bodies desiccated by the desert ( natural mummies ) are commonly found before the Black style and after the Red style. Mud-mummies are bodies covered with a thin layer of mud, encased or covered with a mud paste. The paste, a couple of centimetres thick, was applied from head to toes. These types of mud-covered bodies clustered around 1700 BC.
Uhle's typology has been widely used ever since ; in what ways is your new classification more robust ?
The difference between Uhle's typology and mine is more on degree than in kind. I still use his definitions of natural and mud-coated mummies, but I have subdivided his complex mummies to incorporate Black, Red and Bandage mummies. Uhle debated that the Chinchorros lived around 100 AD, but thanks to the radiocarbon dating of many Chinchorro mummies and typology, but we now know that artificial mummification started with the Black style around 5000 BC and declined with the mud coated mummies around 1700 BC.
You distinguish five epochs for the Chinchorro culture. Reasons and characteristics ?
During the 1990s, the Chinchorro Culture was studied as a bounderless cultural phenomenon, which I divided in epochs to call attention to their cultural variation and chronology. That is, if we want to understand the 3000-4000 years of Chinchorro prehistory, and particularly the evolution of their artificial mummification practices, we need to fine-tune our chronology and map cultural changes.
The first epoch represents the original population's coming to the region, second : the development of mummification practices, third : the peak of mummification ( black style ), fourth : their decline, and last the disappearance of artificial mummification practices. For example, by researching shorter cultural periods, we may understand how and why styles changed.
When, how and why would this culture have come to this energy investment in mummification ?
When and how are easier to answer than why. Chinchorro artificial mummification practices started around 5000 BC in the Camarones Valley near the modern city of Arica. It seems that the Chinchorro morticians started their tradition by mummifying children, and mummification techniques later underwent various degrees of sophistication. I consider the Black style to be the most sophisticated, but the Red style is the most visually striking.
Now, it is difficult to have a simple answer as to why they did it. It was most likely due to their religious beliefs in the afterlife and the concept of body-soul unity. For example, for the soul to survive, the body had to be preserved at all cost or people believed it may go about frightening the living. The Chinchorros likely considered their mummies as powerful living entities inhabiting a parallel world : the dead were part of the living society, like the modern christian statuettes of Saints ( visible bodies but invisible spirits ).
What about their children adoration and ethno-cannibalism?
Chinchorro mortuary attention to their children is unique. In highly stratified societies like ours, lower class children receive simple or meager mortuary disposal. But in a small group, the dead of a couple of children certainly threatened the survival of the entire group. Affection and grief may thus have triggered the preservation of children…
I think ethnocannibalism is possible, but it remains a speculation at the moment. Body dismemberment was caused by burial practices, rather than by consumption of the flesh.
Does mummification give any indication about Chinchorro associated rites and beliefs ?
Artificial mummification reveals both a complex belief in afterlife and a complex thought. In addition, it seems that Chinchorro mummies were made to feast with the living, not to be put away in a tomb or in a grave like Egyptian mummies. To the Chinchorros, the supernatural world was more important than economics and political views.
What correlations do you elicit from the 282 mummies found to this day ? Considering their span over five millenia, that is a low figure. An explanation ?
I think there are more mummies, but mummies are often destroyed by growing cities, Arica in particular. However, I don't expect to find thousands of them, because the cemeteries and mummies found indicate a low population density. The mummies found by Uhle in 1919-1922 are part of 282 bodies. Uhle's mummies are housed in the National Museum of Natural History in Santiago and at the Natural History Museum in Valparaiso. Junius Bird's Chinchorro mummies excavated in the 1940s are housed at the National Museum of National History in New York. Carl Skottesberg 1924 findings are curated at the Ethnographic Museum in Gothenburg, Sweden. Other Chinchorro mummies are curated in the Museo Regional de Iquique, Chile. Most mummies, however, are curated at the Museo Arqueologico San Miguel de Azapa, in Arica, Chile.
There is some debate over whether subsequent andean cultures practised mummification. Why ?
Chroniclers such as Inka Garcilaso de la Vega stated that royal Inkas were embalmed, but this claim has never been proven. Unfortunately, many royal mummies were destroyed by Spanish conquistadors. It is true, however, that Inka and other Andean cultures venerated, paraded and feasted with the dead : « the Indians have the beastly act of venerating the bodies of the dead », wrote Bernabé Cobo in his Inca Religion and Customs ( 1653 ). Felipe Guaman Poma de Ayala, in El Primer Nueva Cronica y Buen Gobierno ( 1615 ) wrote : « November was 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. Much money was spent partying with the dead »...
The cult to the dead seems to be a near universal phenomenon. Mummification can be an accident of the environment ( natural mummification ) or a conscious undertake to preserve the dead. Dry or cold places may produce bodies naturally mummified. Sometimes, however, relatives want to avoid the decay of the body and preserve the dead using various techniques such as evisceration.
The Chinchorro excelled in altering the body to ensure preservation. Likewise, in Colombia, Muisca Indians preserved the dead and ornamented their skeletons. In Peru, the Chachapoyas created elaborated mortuary bundles and built complex mausoleums in hard to find places. The living wanted to protect the dead from enemies and looters. In the Aleutian Islands, dead leaders were eviscerated and body cavities filled with dry grasses, all buried in caves.
Any analogies or differences with Egyptian mummies ?
Ancient Egypt was a civilization with commoners, military and ruling social classes, developping writing and agriculture along large cities and temples. Their mortuary treatment was based on acquired and inherited social status, by contrast, the Chinchorros were small groups of fishermen with a low population density, a loose organization, and few cultural materials.
Yet both cultures developed extreme levels to preserve their dead : one used natron, the other soils and sticks, with the same result : a mummy. The Egyptians hid the dead, the Chinchorro embraced them ; Egyptian mummification spinned around prestige, wealth and power ; Chinchorro mummification was based on a democratic and humanistic view of the dead, since everyone was mummified, including fetuses.