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Human remains and textile found in a burial at the Huaca Bellavista archaeological site in Peru.

Why Were Chinese Workers Buried at a Pre-Inca Huaca in Peru?

An important site for one ancient culture usually had an appeal for those following them. For example, sacred Cañari sites in Ecuador were often recreated into Inca sites, then Spanish colonials used the same materials or locations in their building projects. A similar story can be found in Peru at Huaca (pyramid) Bellavista – a Pre-Inca site that was used and re-used right up to the 19th century, when indentured Chinese laborers found their final resting place there.

16 graves have been found dug for Chinese migrants at the top of an adobe pyramid which was first used by the Ichma people 800 years ago. Roxana Gomez, the lead archaeologist of the site, told Reuters that the Chinese graves were dug in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

Gomez said the first 11 bodies were laid to rest in cloth shrouds and placed directly in the ground, however the five later individuals had been dressed in blue-green jackets - a common item of clothing for Chinese migrants at the time - and buried in wooden coffins. One of the coffins included a small ceramic vessel and an opium pipe.

An opium pipe was included in the burial of one of the 19th century Chinese laborers discovered at Huaca Bellavista in Lima, Peru.

An opium pipe was included in the burial of one of the 19th century Chinese laborers discovered at Huaca Bellavista in Lima, Peru. ( Ministerio de Cultura )

It is believed the Chinese migrants probably worked under hard conditions at a nearby cotton plantation, however they were laid to rest at a significant site for Pre-Inca people.

Archaeologists believe Huaca Bellavista was an administrative center for the Ichma. Tributes and ceremonies were organized there and agriculture was a main activity for its inhabitants. Some of the features that have been identified at Huaca Bellavista are patios, irrigation canals, administrative buildings, and warehouses. The people of the area traded their products such as corn, cotton, and peanuts for fish from the coast. The Inca continued to use the site until the Spanish arrived (although their base in the area was Puruchuco). Following the Spanish arrival, huacas were considered blasphemous and new villages were created nearby for the inhabitants of Bellavista. Gomez said that Italian immigrants also kept vineyards at the base of the site, adding “The best way to understand our history is as a continuum of different cultures.”

View of the Huaca Bellavista site.

View of the Huaca Bellavista site. ( Huaca Bellavista )

Although Huaca Bellavista holds archaeological value, the site may or may not have been regarded as especially important to the individuals who dug the graves; Peru’s Ministry of Culture explained that in general, Chinese workers were not allowed to be buried in Lima’s Catholic cemeteries at the time, so they had improvised burials such as the ones found at the Huaca Bellavista.

The remains of one of the Chinese laborers buried at Huaca Bellavista.

The remains of one of the Chinese laborers buried at Huaca Bellavista. ( Dante Piaggio )

Apart from the burials of the Chinese laborers, numerous Inca period artifacts have also been found, such as aryballos (storage jars). Ichma elite burials containing grave goods have also been unearthed at Huaca Bellavista, some of them of children. Beads of different materials, musical instruments, figurines, textiles, and the remains of two ducks buried with a man have further demonstrated the lengthy inhabitation of the site and the diversity in its occupants.

The Ichma (Ychma or Ychsma) were one of the first two great cultures (the other being the Chancay culture ) that arose in the area of Lima following the breakup of the Wari Empire. Their area of influence extended from the Lurin Valley south of Lima to the Rimac Valley further north, and they are also known for having constructed and remodeled many of the archaeological structures currently found in Lima.

Two important archaeological sites the Ichma have been noted for creating are Puruchuco and Cajamarquilla. The Ichma also are said to have inhabited the site of Pachacamac, where they continued to grow their religious influence over the region and built 16 pyramids. The Ichma culture reached its end in the 1400s, when they were overtaken by the Inca.

The Templo del Sol (Temple of the Sun) at Pachacamac, Lima, Peru.

The Templo del Sol (Temple of the Sun) at Pachacamac, Lima, Peru. ( CC BY 3.0 )

Top Image: Human remains and textile found in a burial at the Huaca Bellavista archaeological site in Peru. Source: Dante Piaggio

By Alicia McDermott

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