We know that, to date, Chinchorro mummies are the oldest in the world, and that the ancient Chinchorro people were unique in that they did not selectively mummify based on age or sex. Yet, why is open to interpretation. Why did the Chinchorro people practice mummification? Why did they use different complex mummification styles? Why did they mummify some people and leave others open to the natural elements?
In his book Beyond Death: The Chinchorro Mummies of Ancient Chile, Bernardo Arriaza, the principle researcher who is often cited, considers five possible implications of Chinchorro mummification (134):
1) social stratification in which only certain people were mummified
2) coexistence of different ethnic groups, clans or sodalities with different mortuary practices
3) ancestor worship in which the artificial mummies represented images of ancestors
4) beliefs in life after death
5) needs or desires for perpetuity or continuity of life
There is enough contextual evidence from the excavations to reasonably eliminate the first two suggested associations. There are no typical indicators of ranking found at the sites, such as monumental architecture, grave goods, or significant differences in age, sex, or energy expenditure of the mummifications. Radiocarbon dating and the haphazard ensemble of placement in the cemeteries both suggest that there were not separate groups with different styles, but that styles gradually changed over time (134-138).
As briefly discussed in a previous post, it is most likely that mummification acted as a social bonding mechanism, to forge group cohesion. However, it is important to remember, and recognize with the last three implications, that nothing is certain in archaeology. Arriaza even makes a point to remind that the remaining chapter about ritual in Chinchorro society is informed speculation, but also that “the risk is worth taking” (140). He suggests that Chinchorro mummification “represented an extension of life.” They may have believed that death was not a definite end, but a transition into another plane of existence. The mummification process likely incorporated intensive significant rituals, such as rites of separation, liminality, and reintegration; as suggested by the care and complexity visible in the mummies.
The Effects of Looting
One would think that since the Chinchorro mummies have been consistently researched since their discovery, that all of the mummies would be accounted for and on display in a museum. However, this was only partially correct until recently. On March 8, 2011, four mummies were returned to the Chilean government from the Swiss government, two of which were very early Chinchorro mummies (Agence France Presse). The unidentified private collector supposedly turned over the mummies to the Swiss government, and the Chillean government turned over the mummies to the San Miguel de Azapa archaeological museum (Agence France Presse). This is where the rest of the mummies and artifacts from the Chinchorro people are currently on display.
While we can be happy with the outcome of this particular event, it leads us to wonder if we really know where all of the mummies and Chinchorro artifacts are located. There could be so much more to learn about this ancient culture if there were even more artifacts to study. All of that knowledge could be lost if private collectors continue to buy artifacts illegally and expand their own collections for purely individual reasons.
This short, six segment blog cannot possibly delve into all the knowledge that the Chinchorro mummies have to offer for aspiring archaeologists. While Bernardo Arriaza continues to conduct research, and new technology develops to aid in deciphering the past, there could possibly be even more uncovered about the mysterious ancient culture.
It is not our goal as students to recite every fact exactly as we read them, but to instead dig up stories from other’s experiences, hypothesize about events and to try to be open minded and respectful when studying ethnohistorical data. Our research of the Chinchorro mummies proved to be an interesting combination of anthropology, politics, world heritage, DNA research, and the archaeology of death and mortuary rituals.
Arriaza, B. 1995. Beyond Death: The Chinchorro Mummies of Ancient Chile. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington.