Chinchorro Culture Unchecked

Here’s a supplemental clip to our last post that gives a nice summary about the significance of arsenic poisoning and the Chinchorro’s mummification practices. 

Chinchorro Mummification Styles

               Through processes such as radiocarbon dating, scientists have determined that one of the seven Chinchorro mummies is approximately 9,000 years old.  In 1917, a German scientist, Max Uhle, grouped Hothe Chinchorro mummies into three specific categories. He did this by grouping them according to the methods used for mummification.  Type I is simple, where no human effort was put forth; instead, mummification is due to the arid conditions of the Atacama Desert.  Type II is complicated, which includes defleshing and synthetic restoration of the bodies.  Type III includes clay covered corpses, where the hardening of the mud encases the body like a hard shell (Aufderheide et al, 1993, 189).  We would like to further explore the techniques used by the Chinchorro including red, black, mud and bandage styles.

               The black style process (pictured above) was used between approximately 5000 and 2800 years B.C.E. (Van Hoesen and Arriaza, 2011, 986-995).  During this process, the bodies were skinned and the flesh was removed.  Then, using reeds from their local environment coated with clay, they re-articulated the skeleton. Finally, the body was painted black with a thin coat of paint. This paint is manganese based, which gives it its hue (Van Hoesen and Arriaza, 2011, 986-995). The preparation of the mummies was a form of secondary burial, but the condition of the facial skin suggests that it was first removed before the primary burial (Arriaza et al, 2008, 52).

               The red style (pictured above, J. Van Hoesen Flickr) of mummification appeared around 2000 BCE and lasted for about 500 years. Organs and some muscle were removed through incisions along the body, and the head would be detached from the trunk. Wooden sticks were incorporated into the arms, legs, and spine by slipping them under the skin, differing from the method used in the black style. Then, the bodies were stuffed to re-form the shape, and a long wig was added to the head. The body was painted with red ochre, an iron oxide, and the face was left black but with the eyes and mouth accentuated to look more realistic. Although the process of creating the red style mummies was more simplified than the black style, in the end, the appearance from the red style technique was more visually striking (Arriaza et al, 2008, 53).

               The third style of mummification used in Chinchorro society is the bandaged style. Also occurring around 2000 BCE, the mummification process was very similar to the red style. The distinguishing difference between the styles is the arrangement of the skin. After the bodies had been skinned, it was reapplied in strips that resembled bandages. Another variation is a similar preparation using reed cords (Arriaza et al, 2008, 53).

Below is an image of a hand bandaged with reeds.

               Lastly, the mud style process involves coating the entire body in a thick coat of mud. This process has been observed throughout all of the mummification technique process shifts (Van Hoesen and Arriaza, 2011, 985-995).  Recently, an analysis of this mud was conducted by Van Hoeson and Arriaza (2011), determining that the mud had both clay and gypsum particles which acted as binding agents.  They also determined that these characteristics made the mud used by the Chinchorro very malleable and useful for rebuilding and encasing bodies.

               The effort that the Chinchorro put into excavating and preparing the materials to encase their dead, alludes to the idea that they were able to identify certain sediments within their environment that were necessary to manufacture mummies which could withstand time (Van Hoesen and Arriaza, 2011, 995).  Such care evident in the amount energy expended indicates the Chinchorro society’s significant connection with the deceased in their ideology. However, we can’t directly infer specific beliefs concerning the ancestors. 


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.

Aufderheide, AC., Munoz, I., and Arriaza, B. June 1993. Seven Chinchorro Mummies and the Prehistory of Northern Chile. American Journal of Physical Anthropology. Volume 91:2. Pages 189-201.

Van Hoesen J. and B. Arriaza. 17 March 2011. Characterizing the Micromorphology of Sediments Associated with Chinchorro Mummification in Arica, Chile Using SEM and EDS. Archaeometry. Volume 53: 5. Pages 986-995.