- Jane Chambers
- Arica chile
“It may seem strange that some people live on top of a cemetery, but we are used to it,” says Ana María Nieto, who lives in the northern Chilean port city of Arica.
Arica is on the border with Peru. It is built on the sandy dunes of the Atacama desert, the driest in the world.
But long before the seaside town was founded in the 16th century, this area was home to the culture chinchorro.
Their culture made headlines in July when the United Nations cultural organization, UNESCO added hundreds of preserved chinchorro mummies to its World Heritage List.
Chinchorro mummies were first documented in 1917 by the German archaeologist Max Uhle, who found some of the preserved bodies on a beach. But decades of research have been necessary to determine its age.
Radiocarbon dating eventually showed the mummies to be over 7,000 years old. That’s 2,000 years older than known Egyptian mummies.
• Pre-ceramic culture that lasted from 7,000 to 1,500 BC. C.
• Sedentary fishermen and hunter-gatherers
• They lived in what is now the extreme north of Chile and the south of Peru.
• They mummified their dead in a sophisticated and evocative way.
• It is believed that mummification began as a way to keep memories of the dead alive.
That makes Chinchorro mummies are the oldest known archaeological evidence of artificially mummified bodies.
The anthropologist Bernardo Arriaza, an expert in the Chinchorro culture, says that they practiced intentional mummification. That means they used mortuary practices to preserve the bodies rather than letting them mummify naturally in the dry climate, although some naturally mummified bodies have also been found.
Small incisions were made in the body, organs were removed, and cavities were dried while the skin was peeled off, Arriaza explains.
The chinchorro then stuffed the body with natural fibers and sticks to keep it straight before using reeds to sew the skin.
They also placed thick black hair on the mummy’s head and covered its face with clay and a mask with openings for the eyes and mouth.
Finally, the body was painted in a distinctive red or black color using mineral pigments such as ocher, manganese, and iron oxide.
The methods and approach of Chinchorro mummification differed markedly from that of the Egyptians, Arriaza says.
The Egyptians didn’t just use oil and bandages. Mummification was also reserved for deceased members of the elite, while the Chinchorro mummified men, women, children, babies, and even fetuses, regardless of their status.
Living with the dead
With hundreds of mummies found in Arica and elsewhere over the past century, the locals learned to live alongside and often on top of the remains.
Discovering human remains during construction work or having a dog sniff and dig up parts of a mummy is something that generations of local people have experienced. But for a long time they did not know how important these remains were.
“Sometimes the neighbors tell us stories about how the children used the skulls to make soccer balls and took the clothes off the mummies, but now they know that they must inform us when they find something and leave it alone,” says archaeologist Janinna Campos Fuentes. .
Ana María Nieto and Paola Pimentel, who are from the region, are delighted that Unesco has recognized the importance of the Chinchorro culture.
The two women lead neighborhood associations near two of the excavation sites and have been working closely with a group of scientists from the University of Tarapacá to help the community understand the importance of the Chinchorro culture and ensure that it is take care of the precious sites.
There are new plans for a nearby museum where rows of hammock remains that are protected by reinforced glass so that visitors can observe them while they live an interactive experience.
The idea is to train the locals as guides so that they can show their heritage.
Currently, only a small part of the more than 300 chinchorro mummies are on display. Most are housed in the San Miguel de Azapa Archaeological Museum.
The museum, which is owned and managed by the University of Tarapacá, is a 30-minute drive from Arica and has impressive exhibits showing the mummification process.
There are plans to make a larger museum that will house more mummies, but it is also necessary to ensure that they are properly preserved so that they do not deteriorate.
Arriaza and archaeologist Jannina Campos are also convinced that Arica and the surrounding hills they still keep many treasures that have not yet been discovered. But it takes more resources to find them.
The mayor, Gerardo Espíndola Rojas, hopes that the addition of the mummies to the World Heritage List will boost tourism and attract additional funds.
But he is aware that any development must be done in the right way, working with the community and safeguarding the sites.
“Unlike Rome, which sits on monuments, the people of Arica live on human remains and we need to protect the mummies.”
Urban planning laws are in place and archaeologists are present every time construction work takes place, he says, to make sure the precious remains are not disturbed.
Mayor Espíndola also insists that, unlike in other parts of Chile, where tour operators and multinational companies have bought land to make a profit from tourist sites, Arica’s heritage must remain in the hands of its people and benefit the local community.
The president of the Neighborhood Association, Ana María Prieto, is sure that the new fame of the mummies will work in everyone’s favor.
“This is a small, but friendly city. We want tourists and scientists from all over the world to come and learn about the incredible chinchorro culture that we have been living with all our lives.”
Now you can receive notifications from BBC Mundo. Download the new version of our app and activate them so you don’t miss out on our best content.
Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.