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Excavations of a group burial complex of the Wari empire. Source: ed. M. Giersz, © PUCP Archaeology Program “Valley of Pachacámac”/ CC BY-SA 4.0; Center & Right: © M.Giersz, ed. K. Kowalewski/ CC BY-SA 4.0

Wari-Mask Mummies And Carved Totems Dating Back to 800-1000 AD Found in Peru

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A recent discovery at Pachacámac in Peru has revealed a significant find of seventy-three intact burials, in funerary bundles known as ‘fardos’. The burials are of both genders, with some adorned with intricately carved wooden and ceramic masks, specifically positioned on ‘false heads’. The finds date to the latter part of the Middle Horizon, between 800-1100 AD, corresponding to the expansion period of the Wari Empire’s reign.

Burial and Accompanying Finds: Contact With Other Empires

This archaeological find was uncovered by a team of researchers from the Pontifical Catholic University of Peru, under the leadership of Professor Krzysztof Makowski, at the archaeological site of Pachacámac, located south of Lima, Peru, according to a press release.

In addition to the burial discoveries, archaeologists stumbled upon two wooden staffs near the cemetery within the remnants of a nearby settlement. These staffs were found in a deposit of "thorny oyster" ( Spondylus princeps) shells, believed to have been imported from present-day Ecuador, situated to the north of the Wari Empire.

The carved iconography on these staffs potentially suggests that the inhabitants of Pachacámac had established some form of contact with individuals from the Tiwanaku kingdom. The Tiwanaku kingdom, positioned to the south of the Wari Empire, spanned the present-day regions of Peru, Bolivia, and Chile - an indicator of ancient trade routes and cultural exchanges.

The wooden staffs depict dignitaries donning headgear reminiscent of the styles worn in the Tiwanaku kingdom, providing tangible evidence of the influence and exchange between the people of Pachacámac and those of the Tiwanaku kingdom. The shared elements in the headgear design along with the stylistic similarities make these finds historically and culturally unique, according to Archeowiesci blog.

Staff carved in wood with depictions of two figures of the Wari Empire (800-1,100 AD) placed in a votive deposit concealed with a layer of fragments of the tropical shell Spondydus princeps, imported from Ecuador. (© M.Giersz, ed. K. Kowalewski/CC BY-SA 4.0)

Staff carved in wood with depictions of two figures of the Wari Empire (800-1,100 AD) placed in a votive deposit concealed with a layer of fragments of the tropical shell Spondydus princeps, imported from Ecuador. (© M.Giersz, ed. K. Kowalewski/CC BY-SA 4.0)

The population that emerged in connection with the conquest of the central Peruvian coast around 800 AD, coincided with the abandonment of temples and power centers of the Lima culture, dating from 300 to 800 AD. They utilized ceramics linked to Ayacucho traditions. Interestingly, these ceramics also displayed influences from the northern Peruvian coast, providing a complex and multifaceted picture of cultural dynamics during this transformative period.

Pachacámac: Giving Life to Earth

The site, during the Wari Empire period, exhibits a distinct plan and character, deviating from the presumed continuous sacred function. It wasn't until its integration into the Inca Empire that Pachacámac transformed into a monumental establishment, assuming its role as the place of an oracle, with priests consulting a wooden idol, and becoming one of the central Andes' three most significant temples.

Notably, during the Wari period, Pachacámac lacked the monumental features observed later. Despite over a century of exploration, no evidence has surfaced supporting the hypothesis that the site produced ceramics, textiles, or other artifacts bearing the intricate iconography of imperial deities seen in Huari, the Wari Empire's capital, Conchopata (Ayacucho), or Tiahuanaco, the capital of the Tiwanaku kingdom.

Pachacámac, renowned as an Incan-period temple and oracle dedicated to the deity Pacha Kamaq (Pachakamak in Quechua), meaning 'one who gives life to the earth,' encompasses a vast complex of cemeteries from various historical periods. It was uncovered first by Max Uhle, a pioneering figure in scientific archaeology in the Andes, who found this complex in the late 19th century.

He attributed the temple's worship to the deity Pacha Kamaq, although his detailed findings were not extensively published, and only general descriptions of the site plan, architecture, excavations, and stratigraphy were made available.

The cemetery had endured systematic destruction both before and after Uhle's investigations, primarily due to colonial efforts to eradicate pagan beliefs ( extirpación de idolatrías) and subsequent looting by grave robbers. As a result, only a fraction of the excavated graves was well preserved, which makes these finds even more significant.

North-South profile at cemetery 1 in Pachacamac (Peru), the surface of which was partially disturbed by a wall from the Inca period, rebuilt in the early Colonial period (© PUCP Archaeology Program “Valley of Pachacamac”, ed. K. Kowalewski/CC BY-SA 4.0)

North-South profile at cemetery 1 in Pachacamac (Peru), the surface of which was partially disturbed by a wall from the Inca period, rebuilt in the early Colonial period
(© PUCP Archaeology Program “Valley of Pachacamac”, ed. K. Kowalewski/
CC BY-SA 4.0)

Professor Makowski and his team, including Cynthia Vargas, Doménico Villavicencio, and Ana Fernández, strategically directed their research efforts to an area where a formidable wall, dating back to both the Inca and colonial periods, had collapsed, reports Live Science.

The reasoning behind this choice was the expectation that the heaps of adobe bricks resulting from the collapse would serve as a deterrent, which would have challenged grave robbers from freely accessing the burial sites, an assumption that proved accurate.

Clearly, a dynamic evolution in the significance and scale of Pachacámac over time occurred: during the period of the Wari Empire, it appears to have been a relatively modest settlement. However, this changed significantly during the time of the Inca Empire, particularly in the 15th century, when Pachacámac experienced substantial growth.

Under the Inca, Pachacámac transformed into a major center of religious worship. The site's expansion and the heightened religious importance during the Inca era suggest a significant shift in its cultural and strategic significance.

The Wari Civilization and the Cultural Evolution of Pre-Hispanic Andes

The Wari civilization is renowned for its distinctive cultural practices and achievements, including their renowned well-preserved mummies. They are also known for their elaborate artistry, with the Wari people producing beautifully designed ceramics and textiles.

The Wari's cultural landscape encompassed rituals that included human sacrifice, the use of hallucinogens during religious ceremonies – a common theme across pre-Columbian indigenous cultures, reflecting a connection between altered states of consciousness and belief systems.

Carved wood mask on the so-called “false head” of a burial tomb, and Pachacámac, Peru. (© PUCP Archaeology Program “Valley of Pachacámac”/ CC BY-SA 4.0)

Carved wood mask on the so-called “false head” of a burial tomb, and Pachacámac, Peru. (© PUCP Archaeology Program “Valley of Pachacámac”/ CC BY-SA 4.0)

The current site, along with another significant site from the same era, the Castillo de Huarmey on the coast, has also been studied by Polish scholars, including Professor Miłosz Giersz and Patrycja Prządka-Giersz, PhD, who are colleagues and former students of Professor Makowski. Drawing parallels between these two sites will provide a more comprehensive understanding of this time period and the Wari civilization.

Excavations of a group burial complex in chambers at Pachacamac cemetery (© PUCP Archaeology Program “Valley of Pachacámac”, ed. M. Giersz/CC BY-SA 4.0)

Excavations of a group burial complex in chambers at Pachacamac cemetery (© PUCP Archaeology Program “Valley of Pachacámac”, ed. M. Giersz/CC BY-SA 4.0)

Contrary to earlier assumptions proposed by Uhle, the cemetery unearthed in Professor Makowski's excavations does not align with the attributes of an elite necropolis. Instead, it bears a resemblance to the Ancón site, known as the burial ground for fishermen along the coast between the Chancay and Chillón valleys. This similarity extends across both the Wari Empire period and subsequent eras.

Top image: Excavations of a group burial complex of the Wari empire. Source: ed. M. Giersz, © PUCP Archaeology Program “Valley of Pachacámac”/ CC BY-SA 4.0; Center & Right: © M.Giersz, ed. K. Kowalewski/ CC BY-SA 4.0

By Sahir Pandey

References

Chyla, J. 2023. Seventy-three intact burials with carved masks discovered at Pachacámac. Available at: https://archeowiesci.pl/en/seventy-three-intact-burials-with-carved-masks-discovered-at-pachacamac/.

Jarus, O. 2023. 73 pre-Incan mummies, some with 'false heads,' unearthed from Wari Empire in Peru. Available at: https://www.livescience.com/archaeology/73-pre-incan-mummies-some-with-false-heads-unearthed-from-wari-empire-in-peru.

Marull, D.R. 2023. Mummies with “false heads” from the Wari Empire discovered in Peru. Available at: https://www.lavanguardia.com/cultura/20231128/9412897/momias-falsas-cabezas-imperio-wari-descubiertas-peru-arqueologia.html.

 
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Sahir

I am a graduate of History from the University of Delhi, and a graduate of Law, from Jindal University, Sonepat. During my study of history, I developed a great interest in post-colonial studies, with a focus on Latin America. I... Read More

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