Ancient Indigenous people in Peru had a unique response to the looting and destruction of their ancestors’ graves during the European colonial period, an international team of archaeologists has discovered.
A study led by the University of East Anglia (UEA) found nearly 200 examples of human vertebrae threaded onto reed posts in the Chincha Valley, dating from AD 1450-1650. The period spanned the Inca rule and the start of the European colonization – a turbulent time of extensive famine and epidemics – that coincided with widespread desecration of Indigenous people’s graves by Europeans.
This distinctive treatment of the deceased has never before been documented in the region – although it’s not unlike rituals observed in other parts of the world, such as ancient Egypt.
Dr. Jacob L Bongers, an archaeologist from the Sainsbury Research Unit at UEA, is the lead author of the paper, ‘Assembling the dead: human vertebrae-on-posts in the Chincha Valley, Peru’. The study is published today in the journal Antiquity.
Andean peoples were known to have valued bodily integrity, Dr Bongers said, and the reconstruction of the dead may have been a way for Indigenous groups to restore the potency of their ancestors’ damaged remains.
Dr. Bongers said: “Our findings suggest that vertebrae-on-posts represent a direct, ritualized Indigenous response to European colonialism.”
Researchers discovered most of these reed post remains in large, elaborate Indigenous graves known as chullpas, hundreds of which are scattered throughout the region.
Radiocarbon dating suggests the threading of vertebrae onto reeds was done after the initial burial. People were returning to chullpas to reconstruct their dead, likely after they were damaged by looters.
Ultimately, the team discovered 192 examples of vertebrae-on-posts in the valley. In almost every case, each appears to have been made from the remains of a single individual. Adults and juveniles were selected for this practice.
Isotopic and ancient DOI: 10.15184/aqy.2021.180