The little-known Pachacamac mummies of Peru
Mummification is a word synonymous with the ancient Egyptians. Yet, this process has been practised by a variety of other cultures as well. One of the countries outside Egypt in which numerous mummies have been found is Peru. Whilst the southern part of this country has produced the famous Chinchorro mummies, there are other mummies, such as the Pachacamac mummies, that are perhaps less well known.
Pachacamac is an archaeological site located in the Valley of the Lurin River, 40 km southeast of Peru’s capital, Lima. This site was thought to have been first settled in A.D. 200, and inhabited continuously until the Spanish Conquest in the 1530s. Thus, Pachacamac is regarded as one of the longest continuously inhabited urban centres in the Andes. Pachacamac was named after Pacha Kamaq, the creator god worshipped by the pre-Incan people living in the area. Therefore, Pachacamac functioned as an important religious and pilgrimage site. When the Incas conquered the area in the late 15 th century, they incorporated Pacha Kamaq into their own pantheon, though he was considered as a lesser rival of Viracocha, the creator god of the Incas. In addition to being a religious site, Pachacamac was also a place was the dead were buried, as the sacred nature of Pachacamac would have made it an attractive burial place for those who wanted to be close to their god in the afterlife.
Pachacamac archeological site, Mamacona. In the Lurin valley, 31 km south of Lima, Peru ( Wikimedia Commons )
Archaeological excavations in the 1890s uncovered numerous graves at Pachacamac. These graves may be dated to different period of Pachacamac’s history, and different areas of the city contained different groups of graves. For instance, on the southeastern terrace of the temple complex of Inti (the Incan sun god), archaeologists found a cemetery set apart for the mamacuna (Virgins of the Sun), women who held an important position in the temple services. In life, these women were responsible for weaving the textiles worn by priests, and brewing the corn beer used in many Incan festivals. In death, they were accorded the highest ritual, as they were sacrificed. This is evident in the fact that many of the women still had the cotton garrotte used to strangle them twisted around their necks. After the sacrifice, the women were wrapped in fine clothes, and buried in stone-lined tombs. The tombs were also filled with offerings of foodstuff, including cocoa, quinoa and cayenne pepper, all of which come from the Peruvian highland, rather than plants from the local area.
Further to the north was the Pachacamac Temple, around which numerous graves from different periods of the city’s history were found. Unlike the mamacuna buried at the temple complex of Inti, those buried here do not seem to have been in the service of the temple. For instance, as section of the temple contained burials of individuals with close-cropped hair who have been thought to be high ranking Incan officials. The contents of earlier graves around the temple were found to be in various states of preservation. For instance, some well-preserved mummies were found around 3 m under the temples northern terrace. These mummies were in the shape of a bale with a false head attached on the top. Moreover, the grave goods that were found consisted of local foodstuff, as well as everyday objects such as farming and fishing tools, and wine gourds, indicating that the afterlife was viewed as an extension of earthly life.
Pachacamac Temple ( Wikimedia Commons )
In 2012, Belgian archaeologists working in Pachacamac uncovered a 1000 year old tomb in front of the Pachacamac Temple. This tomb contained more than 80 skeletons and mummies, many of which were infants. In addition, the dead were accompanied by offerings such as ceramic vessels, copper and gold alloy objects, masks of painted wood, as well as dogs and guinea pigs. The fact that such a lavish tomb was discovered may be an indication that there is much more to uncover at Pachacamac.
Tomb discovered at Pachacamac by Belgian archaeologists in 2012. Photo source: news.discovery.com.
Nevertheless, the site’s preservation is facing its biggest threat in 500 years: urban development. The population explosion of Lima from 650,000 in 1950 to over 8 million in the early 21 st century has put a strain on Pachacamac, as it is often used as a sandpit for construction purposes and a garbage dump by would-be settlers and encroaching neighbours. It is imperative that this problem be resolved so as to safeguard the site for future generations. One way of doing so would be to have the site inscribed in UNESCO’s World Heritage List. Although efforts have been made in the past, they have been stalled by disputes over the site’s official limits. The impressive discovery of 2012, however, has allowed Pachacamac to be nominated as a World Heritage Site, and hopefully will lead to its inscription in the List.
Featured image: Two mummy bales and a workman from Max Uhle's excavation at Pachacamac, Peru. Penn Museum
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