In the Atacama Desert, the driest place on Earth, archaeologists have found mummies that are 2,000 years older than Egyptian mummies. Although the Egyptian civilization popularized the term “mummy,” they were not the first to apply advanced conservation techniques.
“The Chinchorro were the first people to inhabit northern Chile and southern Peru,” said Bernardo Arriaza, an anthropologist at the University of Tarapacá. “They were pioneers living in the Atacam Desert regiona”, and was also the first civilization to embalm the dead, starting around 5,000 BC.
The bodies of hundreds of hunter-gatherers have been found throughout Arica and Parinacota, on the Pacific coast. They prospered from fish from the sea, between 5450-890 BC. In 2021, UNESCO added ancient cemeteries to the World Heritage List for their unique archaeological value.
They not only provide details of the burial and worship rituals of an ancient culture, but also provide a new perspective into the social activities and spiritual beliefs of the Chinchorro people. Unlike the EgyptiansSouth American mummification is a ritual regardless of social status.
Researcher Arriaza explains:The rituals of the Chinchorro culture are still valid in many respects: they were the first to conduct the funeral, the pioneers in the area. As for the bodies we still call Chinchorro mummies today, they are truly pre-Hispanic works of art. [Những xác ướp này] is the way the ancients expressed their artistic value with the feelings and emotions of the ancient community“.
Although UNESCO recently declared the heritage status of archaeological sites, the people living in the Arica area have long honored the culture of their predecessors. The Chinchorro mummies were buried so shallowly that they became part of the village’s foundation.
Mr. Johnny Vásquez, who has lived in Arica for the past 60 years, still vividly remembers the event of the sewer digging. When plowing the land to go to the water, he and the construction workers discovered that “mummies piled up in layers“. In 2004, when a contractor dug up the ground to build the hotel, they found dead human bones just a meter below the topsoil. Instead of building a hotel, the contractor decided to turn this place into a museum.
So far, archaeologists have discovered hundreds of mummies of all ages right beneath the shallow soil. As explained by Vivien Standen, a bioarchaeologist working at the University of Tarapacá, the soil in this area contains a lot of natural arsenic, which makes the mortality rate as well as the miscarriage rate of the ancients sadly high. The Chinchurro people also have the custom of smearing manganese on their bodies, but the toxicity of this metal makes the health condition of the natives worse.
Living in the graveyard seems to make most of us insecure, but Arica resident Marina Esquieros doesn’t. “I fear nothing. I have my whole family here. Don’t mind the body lying here and there“.
We see mummies, but the natives don’t have that simple eye. They consider this as the ancestor taking care of daily life. “We feel that we are descended from Chinchorro people” said Alfredo Guerrero. “For the past 10 years, I have empathized and told my family that I will never leave this place. I will stay forever, and will always visit them“.
Jorge Ardiles, a local fisherman agrees with this statement. “They are also fishermen like us, they used to live in this very land. After thousands of years, it’s our turn to live here. As a fishing village, we have given ourselves the right to consider the villagers as their descendants, that’s also why we want to preserve what they leave behind, as the heritage of the whole community.“.
“We are the Chinchorro people of the time‘, said the fisherman Ardiles boldly.
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