I thought about posting this for Halloween. But you know what? Chauchilla cemetery is more than just a novelty.
Yes, there are mummies – plenty of them – so if you like that kind of thing, enjoy. If you’re interested in the history too, I’ve tried to add information from my scribbled note-taking. I can’t promise it’s perfectly accurate but it is what the guide told me.
Although close to modern day Nasca town, the cemetery is hard to spot without knowing where it is. Unfortunately this hasn’t stopped grave-robbers over the centuries from looting the tombs. All that’s left of much of the cemetery are depressions in the sandy terrain where empty graves used to be.
Fragments of bone, textile and ceramic are scattered around the surface. Where possible, archaeologists have gathered what they can and reconstructed the graves which now sit open, under simple roofs to protect them.
The cemetery was used by the Paracas, Nasca and Inca cultures although most burials are dated to the period of 200-900AD.
The wonderful preservation of the bodies and artefacts is due to two things: the naturally dry atmosphere of the desert and the mummification processes.
In some cases the innards were taken out and the bodies packed with salt to remove moisture. Other times, it’s thought the bodies were dried out on platforms in the desert before having the ligaments cut to enable placing in the foetal position. A kind of resin was also applied to aid preservation. Apparently, coca leaves also helped and they have even been found in Egyptian mummies (I’m very sceptical about this).
In the photo above, you can see a clumpy shape in the earth on the right side. This is the remains of a body that, for some reason, decomposed completely. As the fat and grease left the body, it gathered in the soil and this impression is all that’s left.
From studying the bodies it’s possible to identify the diet of these people. Those from inland ate meat and vegetables and have very worn or broken teeth. Those from the coast ate seafood which was easier on the teeth, hence their pearly whites are intact.
The grouping of the bodies within graves is not entirely clear, but it’s suggested they were family groups as children are sometimes also present.
It’s also believed that ‘shamans’ can be identified by their long hair, although many mummies had this feature so either they were pretty ubiquitous in this society or it symbolises something else.
Chauchilla cemetery can be visited from Nasca on a 3 hour tour for around 30 soles. This also includes a visit to ceramic and gold workshops, which I wasn’t thrilled about but turned out to be really interesting. At both places they use traditional techniques (my favourite of which is rubbing a finished ceramic piece on human skin so that the natural oils add a gloss to the pottery).