Chinchorro Culture Unchecked
Mummy Mystery

Why mummify?

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. 



Agence France Presse. 8 March 2011. Chile Chinchorro Mummies Back From Switzerland.  Accessed on 24 April 2012.


Arriaza, B. 1995. Beyond Death: The Chinchorro Mummies of Ancient Chile. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington.

UNESCO to Consider Chinchorro Mummies

Introduction to World Heritage Sites

                The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) uses an international treaty adopted in 1972 (called the Convention Concerning the Protection of World Culture and Heritage) to protect and preserve cultural heritage that are deemed valuable to humanity around the world.  Their mission is to establish sites, safeguard and protect them, and lend emergency assistance to sites in immediate danger. They also help develop public awareness of the sites and develop management plans concerning the sites.  World Heritage Sites are often funded by donations and contributions from countries (often called States Parties).

                In order for a site to be inscribed on the World Heritage Site list, it must go through a nomination process. Only the country in which the site is located can nominate the site. The site must be of outstanding universal value, and must meet at least one of the ten criteria necessary. For instance, one of the criteria listed is that the site must “represent a masterpiece of creative human genius.” For more of the criteria used to nominate a site, please see the World Heritage webpage at Once a site has been nominated and evaluated, a committee will make the final decision on the sites inscription.

The Chinchorro Mummies as a World Heritage Site

                Several Chilean institutions, such as the Council of National Monuments and the University of Tarapacá, have submitted the Archaeology of the Chinchorro Mummies to the World Heritage Site under the criteria (iii). This states that the site proves “to bear a unique or at least exceptional testimony to a cultural tradition or to a civilization which is living or which has disappeared” (  It can be argued that the Chinchorro fit these criteria because they created the oldest preserved mummies in the world. Their culture is also “unique” because they are the only ancient civilization to mummify every type of member, regardless of age or gender. The Chinchorro mummies can also be viewed as works of art, in a modern context and likely an ancient context for the Chinchorros as well, because of the care and effort that went into their production ( ) .

               The site was nominated on 1/09/1998. On January 5-8 2010, an international meeting took place in Chile, which resulted in the World Heritage Centre preparing a publication which will help the nomination file of the site.  Eight international experts are expected to weigh in on the publication (


Potential for Ethical/Legal Problems

                If the Archaeology of the Chinchorro Mummies becomes a World Heritage Site, there is room for potential conflict. For instance, American archaeologists working overseas who wish to survey may no longer be able to. In addition, World Heritage Sites often allow volunteers to go to sites and spend a few weeks helping with architectural repairs or environmental conservation projects. While these activities could encourage public interest, they may also bring an influx of unintentional destruction to the site.

Chinchorro CT Scan

                Furthermore, if the site is protected, we may no longer see scientists performing new and innovative research techniques to the Chinchorro mummies, such as the CT Scan pictured above. Since archaeology is by definition, a destructive science, protection of the site may hinder forward movement in learning about the past.

                Archaeology is very important to Chilean history because it is used as a tool to investigate their pre-Hispanic past. As Daniella Jofré describes in her article, “Reconstructing the Politics of Indigenous Identities in Chile,” archaeology is particularly essential for indigenous groups striving to make claims for cultural heritage recognition. Archaeological sites are property of the State and use them as a way to foster a national identity, while these ethnic groups seek to use them to distinguish their heritage.

Methodology and Research

Radio-Carbon Dating

            Max Uhle was the German scholar who first found the twelve mummies within the Atacama desert coastline in 1917. Since 1983, much time and research has been devoted to delving deeper into the cultural context surrounding the Chinchorro (meaning “raft” or “fishing net” in Spanish) (Arriaza, 1995, pg 5). 

Max Uhle

            The Chinchorro cemeteries themselves seem to be small, but dense. There hasn’t been much evidence of grave goods, which in surrounding areas later on, would suggest a ranking system within the culture (Arriaza, 1995, pg 37).  However, most objects found within the graves were made from shells, such as spoons and containers, as well as polished pebbles (Arriaza, 1995, pg 54).  It should be noted that because the Chinchorro practiced cemetery reuse, it is very difficult to determine exactly which goods go with which individuals (Arriaza, 1995, pg 125).

            Through radio-carbon dating, we can determine that the entire length of time the Chinchorro people inhabited this desert being from approximately 5,860 BC to 1720 BC (Arriaza, 1995, pg 13).  Also indicative through radio-carbon dating is that the use of the different mummy styles which are a good representative of Chinchorro culture chronology (Arriaza, 1995, pg 18).  This is in contrast to what several archaeologists originally speculated. They initially thought that the fishing tools of the Chinchorro would give chronological information; however, the tools just seem to differ according to local fishing strategies (Arriaza, 1995, pg 18)  Arriaza explains the relationship between the chronological record, the mummies and the Chinchorro culture best, “in Chinchorro studies, mortuary treatment represents a more powerful expression of group identity and ideology than artifacts do” (Arriaza, 1995, pg 18). 

            In more recent studies, lab analysis of hair samples pulled from mummies have identified what could have been the tragic downfall to the longevity displayed by the Chinchorro culture (Handwerk, 2010).

Arsenic Poisoning

            Although arsenic is nearly invisible to our senses, it came to the attention of Chile in the 1960’s when the high infant mortality rate was linked with the discovery of high arsenic levels in river water. Later, when reading about this toxicity to infants, it occurred to Ben Arriaza, the principle researcher on the Chinchorro people, to test the remains for arsenic levels (Pringle, 2009). His intuitionwas correct.

            Arriaza tested hair strands from 45 Chinchorro mummies, representing three different geographic areas of where they were excavated. Using mass spectrometry methods, arsenic concentrations can be measured in the body because it persists in the keratin of human hair and nails (Arriaza 1275). Significant toxic levels measure 1 -10 µg/g, and the World Health Organization lists 10 µg/g and above as poisonous.  In his experimental results, Arriaza found that 9 out of 10 mummies had arsenic levels about 1 µg/g and one-third of these had above the substantially dangerous 10 µg/g (1277).
            But how were they poisoned? Arsenic and other minerals leach and spread naturally from volcanic and other earthen formations, usually through water, wind, and rain erosion. Arsenic is most dangerous through chronic ingestion, so the Chinchorro must have been unknowingly consuming small doses nearly daily. Since water resources continued to be contaminated around Chile into recent years, the Chinchorro must have also been using this poisonous water. Their main food, which also grew using the arsenic-laced water, included polluted seeds, aquatic plants, and seafood.

            Wigs and hair are a distinct, and clearly important, feature of the Chinchorro mummies. The tested hair strands revealed that some of the hair did not belong to several of the original mummies. Some hair indicated that it came from different people, and even different geographic areas, which suggests that the Chinchorro explored their surrounding areas and other ecological niches (1277).  Furthermore, Arriaza suspects that the numerous infant deaths gave rise to the intricate mummification methods as a way to cope and keep their children in their lives. Eventually, they extended this practice to all of the deceased (Pringle, 2009). 


Arriaza, B. 1995. Beyond Death: The Chinchorro Mummies of Ancient Chile. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington.

Arriaza, B. Amarasiriwardena, D., Cornejo, L., Standen, V., Byrne, S., Bartkus, L., and Bandak, B. June 2010. Exploring chronic arsenic poisoning in pre-Columbian Chilean mummies. Journal of Archaeological Science. Volume 37:6. Pages 1274-1278.

Handwerk, B. 13 April 2010. Prehistoric Mummies Poisoned. National Geographic News.

Pringle, H. 29 May 2009. Arsenic and Old Mummies: Poison May Have Spurred First Mummies. Science. Volume 324:5931. Page 1130. 

Ecological Context and Cultural Comparisons

Ecological Context

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).

Cultural Comparisons

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


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. Accessed 13 March 2012.

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.

Chinchorro Mummies: An Introduction

The archeological site of the Chinchorro culture is found within South America, in what is now considered northern Chile and southern Peru.  Historically the section of land was named Arica. The Chinchorro people inhabited approximately a 400 mile stretch along the coast.  The Chinchorro represent the earliest known inhabitants of the Atacama Desert (named by climatologists as “the driest place on earth”) (Vesilind, 2012) probably dating as far back at 7000 BC, although mummified remains have only been dated from 5000 BC (Arriaza, 2010). The Chinchorro managed to make their living in the desert through fishing the coastlines, hunting and gathering, and surviving due to the presence of freshwater resources inland (Arriaza, 2010). 

So what makes the Chinchorro people so interesting from an archeological standpoint?  It has to do with their complex mummification processes, and the evidence proven by the Chinchorro that not all early civilizations were nomadic.  The fact that the Chinchorros spent so much time and effort creating these mummies, and putting them in the same locations each time suggests that they were fairly stationary along the coastlines (Arriaza, 2010).  Although we have no written record from the Chinchorro culture, their mummies leave a lasting legacy of a culture connected with their dead (Arriaza et al, 1998).

The Chinchorro also dispute the general claims that societies go from simple to complex, since the Chinchorro used extremely complex methods on the remains of their dead, although they were technologically a simple group (Arriaza, 2010).

Death was a significant event for the Chinchorro people, illustrated by the complex and carefully created mummies that have been unearthed at numerous Chinchorro sites. Although there is some variation within each, there are four different Chinchorro mummification types: black, red, mud, and bandaged (Arriaza 2010). Naturally preserved mummies, due to the arid climate, have also been discovered contemporaneously with manipulated mummies (Aufderheide 199).

The four categories of mummies were specified based on distinguishing features on the exterior of the bodies. Generally, the organs and muscle tissue were removed and sometimes also the flesh. Sticks were inserted to reinforce the skeleton and often other earthen materials would be added to the cavities to help manage the bodies form.  Since the internal structure was sometimes modified or reassembled incorrectly, and the Chinchorro people had a firm grasp of human anatomy, it seems that they were most concerned about the final external shape (Aufderheide 198). The effort and detail apparent on these mummies suggests an artistic and/or religious significance. Interestingly, there does not appear to be any discrimination between who receives the mummification treatment. Mummies of both sexes have been discovered and vary in age beginning at infancy (Arriaza et al., 1998). 

This blog hopes to explore the culture, and more specifically, the mortuary practices of the ancient Chinchorro people of South America. Future blog posts will investigate particular aspects of their culture, including a more in-depth look at some topics introduced above. Enjoy!


Arriaza, Bernardo T., Hapke, Russell A., and Standen, Vivien G.. “Making the Dead Beautiful: Mummies as Art.” Archaeology.  16 Dec. 1998. 5 Feb. 2012. <>

Arriaza, Bernardo. Momias Chinchorro Patrimonio De Todos. 2010. 5 Feb. 2012. <>

Aufderheide, A. C., Muñoz, I. and Arriaza, B. (1993), Seven Chinchorro mummies and the prehistory of northern Chile. American Journal of Physical Anthropology, 91: 189–201. 

Vesilind, Pritt J. “The Driest Place on Earth.” National Geographic Magazine. 5 Feb. 2012. <>