The Chinchorro people inhabited the western coastline of South America, mainly in the Atacama Desert near the modern city of Arica, Chile and up through Peru. At the time of Chinchorro occupation, at least 7,000 years ago, there were more water resources than today, making it possible for the Chinchorros to prosper for thousands of years. Rivers cut through the desert and emptied into the Pacific Ocean, creating a fertile coast of various oases along these tributaries. Also in the Chinchorro’s favor, the area had very little seasonality. There was never any rain and the Humboldt Current created a very arid climate along the coast, with temperatures rarely fluctuating outside of 60-72°F (Arriaza, 1995, 31-48).
Contrary to theories from Max Uhle’s original excavations in the early 1900’s, recent evidence supports the likelihood of the Chinchorro people adopting a year-round sedentary lifestyle relying on plentiful maritime resources (Arriaza et al., 2008, 45-47). Although few are preserved well, domestic huts from the Chinchorros have been excavated. Sophisticated maritime tools and technology have been discovered, suggesting a specialization for nautical subsistence. Dietary analysis from mummy remains has also supported this conclusion. The mummies, clearly a significant facet of Chinchorro culture, would not have been easily transportable and probably would not have survived a nomadic existence. For the Chinchorro culture, developing maritime sedentary communities would be realistically adaptive to their environmental context (Arriaza, 1995, 31-48).
Chinchorro societies persisted with this lifestyle for thousands of years, which prompts the question- why was there little developmental change or innovation? Arriaza suggests that there was little need for resource competition. This would account for the relatively simple way of life, but precise technological development to take advantage of their abundant resources. Chinchorro settlements were also fairly isolated along the coastal oases and from any potential conflict with other groups. The stable conditions of their environment reflect the stable existence of their communities (Arriaza, 1995, 31-48).
Put simply, the quickest and most often used mummification technique is quick drying to prevent bacteria and fungi from decaying the body. There are multiple methods to go about this including, sun drying with fire and smoke, the use of chemicals, putting the body in an oxygen free environment or freezing the body (Clark, 1998). In comparison to other cultures who mummify their dead, the Chinchorro and the Egyptians have preserved mummies early in their culture because of their climate as opposed to their skill (Clark, 1998). Hot sand and arid winds provided the needed environmental conditions to first preserve mummies in both locations. It was only later that their skills developed as far embalmment.
What makes the mummies created by the people of the Aleutian Islands, the Egyptians, and the Chinchorro culture similar is that eventually they would all develop into societies which intentionally create lasting mummies. The Aleut people and the Chinchorro are the only examples of societies in the New World archaeological context who perform intentional mummification (Arriaza, 1995, xi). Like the Chinchorro, the Aleutian people remove the organs and stuff the body with dried grass. However, they had other methods adapted to their environment off the coast of Alaska, in which they hung dried bodies in caves to keep them from the moisture of the cave floors (Clark, 1998). Both cultures used goods from their surrounding environments, grass and animal skins, which show a connection between these cultures and the nature that influenced their daily lives.
It has also been stated through research by Arriaza et al, that artificial mummification by the Chinchorro people was likely at the roots of group cohesion. It would be an opportunity for younger members to learn group values, traditions and proper ancestor worship practices (Arriaza, 1995, 152-153). The long duration of these mummification traditions and practices are due to its centrality of purpose and meaning (Arriaza, 1995, 152). Through mummification techniques, they are essentially placing their dead near their homes, in which their dead can be both physically present and symbolically represented. Through the placing of their dead, we can observe how the Chinchorros as a sedentary society had a natural social bonding mechanism.
For more information about various cultures and their mummification styles, visit http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/ancient/mummies-101.html
Arriaza, B. 1995. Beyond Death: The Chinchorro Mummies of Ancient Chile. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington.
Arriaza, B., Standen, V.G., Cassman, V., and Santoro, C.M. 2008. Chinchorro culture: pioneers of the coast of the Atacama Desert. The Handbook of South American Archaeology. Springer Science and Business Media, New York. Pages 45-58.
Clark, Leisl. 20 January 1998. Mummies 101. NOVA. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/ancient/mummies-101.html. Accessed 13 March 2012.