“It may seem strange for some people to live on top of a cemetery, but we are used to it,” says Ana Maria Nieto, who lives in the port city of Arica, Chile.
The locality on the Peruvian border was built on the sandy dunes of the Atacama Desert, the driest in the world. But long before the founding of this coastal town in the 16th century, this area was home to the Chinchorro people.
Their culture hit the news in July 2021, when Unesco (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) included hundreds of mummies preserved by the chinchorro in its World Heritage List.
The chinchorro mummies were first documented in 1917 by German archaeologist Max Uhle, who had found some of the bodies preserved on a beach. But it took decades of research to determine his age.
Radiocarbon dating has shown the mummies to be over 7,000 years old — two millennia older than the known Egyptian mummies.
The chinchorro culture
- Pre-ceramic culture that lasted from 7000 to 1500 BC
- Sedentary fishermen and hunter-gatherers
- They lived in what is now the far north of Chile and the south of Peru
- They mummified their dead in a sophisticated and inspiring way
- It is believed that mummification began as a way to keep the memory of the dead alive.
Anthropologist Bernardo Arriaza, an expert on the chinchorro people, claims that they intentionally practiced mummification. This means that they employed mortuary practices to conserve the bodies, rather than allowing them to naturally mummify in the dry climate—although some naturally mummified bodies were also found there.
Small incisions were made in the bodies, the organs were removed and the cavities were dried, while the skin was pulled out, explains Arriaza. The chinchorro then filled the body with natural fibers and sticks to keep it straight and used sticks to sew the skin back together.
They also applied thick black hair to the mummy’s head and covered its face with clay and a mask with openings for the eyes and mouth.
Finally, the body was painted a characteristic red or black, using mineral pigments such as ocher, manganese and iron oxide.
The chinchorro’s approach and mummification methods were clearly different from the Egyptians, according to Arriaza. The Egyptians not only used oil and bandages, but mummification was also reserved for the dead of the elite. The chinchorro mummified men, women, children, babies and even fetuses, regardless of their social status.
live with the dead
With the hundreds of mummies found in Arica and elsewhere over the last century, locals have learned to live alongside the remains—and sometimes on top of them.
The discovery of human remains during construction work or when a dog sniffs and unearths parts of a mummy is something that has been experienced by generations of natives. But they spent a long time not understanding the importance of these remains.
“Sometimes, residents tell us stories of children who used the skulls as soccer balls and how they took the clothes off the mummies, but now they know they must let us know when they find something, without touching the place,” says the archaeologist Jannina Campos Fuentes.
Locals Ana Maria Nieto and Paola Pimentel are thrilled that Unesco has recognized the importance of the chinchorro culture.
The two women lead residents’ associations near two excavation sites and have been working closely with a group of scientists from the University of Tarapacá to help the community understand the importance of the chinchorro culture and ensure that the precious archaeological sites are well cared for.
There are new plans for a museum in the region —where groups of chinchorro remains lie under reinforced glass for visitors to observe—to offer a new interactive experience. The idea is to train locals to become guides and show their heritage to others.
Currently, only a very small part of the more than 300 chinchorro mummies are on display. Most of them are housed in the Archaeological Museum of San Miguel de Azapa.
The museum, owned by the University of Tarapacá, which also manages it, is a 30-minute drive from Arica and offers impressive exhibits showing the mummification process.
A larger museum is being planned at the site to house more mummies, but resources are also needed to ensure they are properly preserved and do not deteriorate.
Arriaza and archaeologist Jannina Campos are also convinced that Arica and her neighboring hills still hide many treasures yet to be discovered. But more resources are needed to find them.
The mayor of Arica, Gerardo Espíndola Rojas, hopes that the inclusion of mummies on the UNESCO World Heritage List will encourage tourism and attract more financial resources.
But he knows that everything must be developed correctly, working with the community and preserving the archaeological sites.
“Unlike Rome, which built on monuments, the inhabitants of Arica live on human remains and we need to protect the mummies,” says the mayor.
There are urban planning laws in place, and archaeologists are on hand whenever construction work is conducted, he said, to ensure that precious remains are not lost.
Espíndola is also adamant that, unlike other parts of Chile, where tour operators and multinational companies have bought land to profit from tourist sites, Arica’s heritage must remain in the hands of its inhabitants and benefit the local community.
The president of the residents’ association, Ana Maria Nieto, is confident that the mummies’ recent fame will benefit everyone. “This is a small but friendly town. We want tourists and scientists from all over the world to come and learn about the incredible chinchorro culture that has been with us for a lifetime,” she concludes.