Early South American and Inca mummies
While the ancient Egyptians may be the best-known mummy makers, they
were far from the first. A very sophisticated fishing tribe called the
Chinchoros, who lived on the north coast of what is now Chile, were embalming
their dead as early as 5000 B.C.
Chinchoros embalmers disassembled their corpses, treated the internal organs to
prevent decay, and then reassembled the pieces. They often added cane or wood
supports along the spinal column, arms and legs, filled in the body cavity with
fiber or feathers, and coated the exterior of the body with clay, on which they
painted or sculpted. Infants, children and adults of both sexes were
mummified, though some corpses received more attention than others.
Further north, another coastal group at Paloma were mummifying their dead as
early as 4000 B.C. The Palomans used salt to stop decay and carefully
positioned their dead with knees drawn to the chest and hands clasped. The
bodies were then wrapped in reed matting and buried under the floor of their
By the time of the Inca civilization, which lasted from approximately 1100 to
1500 A.D., the Andean tradition of preserving the dead was still intact. Most
Inca mummies were arranged in the familiar fetal position and were either
wrapped in leather or cloth, or placed in baskets or under huge ceramic jars.
These "mummy bundles" were often brightly decorated and buried with food,
clothing and other items. Some archaeologists believe that the Inca mummified
all their dead, not just the elite.
When the Spanish conquered the Inca in the 1500's and 1600's, they forbade the
practice of mummification, declaring it pagan. The Spanish destroyed countless
Incan burial sites—partly for religious reasons, but also to plunder the
gold often buried with mummies. As a result, few Incan burial sites remain.
In 1875, archaeologists did manage to uncover a huge burial site at
Ancón on the Peruvian coast. Hundreds of shafts, some eighteen to
twenty feet deep, led to tombs where extremely well-preserved mummies bundles
were found. Apparently, the dry climate and high salt content of the region
had helped to prevent decay. The mummies were wrapped in cloth, seaweed,
leaves, grass matting and furs. Many bundles were topped with a sort of false
head, decorated with eyes that stared out into the darkness of the tomb.
Perhaps the most remarkable Incan mummies have been those found on high
mountain peaks, where the Inca offered human sacrifices to their Gods. Over
the years, some 115 of these sacrificial mummies have been found in the high
Andes. In 1995, Dr. Johan Reinhard stumbled upon the body of a young girl,
barely into her teens, on top of Mount Ampato in the Peruvian Andes. Named
"Juanita," she is the best-preserved Incan mummy ever discovered. With long
black hair, a graceful neck, and well-muscled arms, Juanita was found wrapped
in a cocoon of fine textiles and surrounded by gold and silver statues, bags
of corn and other offerings. The goal of this, Reinhard's latest expedition,
is to locate more of these mummies and expand our understanding of Incan