Archaeologists working in the Chincha Valley, on the southern coast of Peru, have identified nearly 200 examples of human vertebrae threaded on to reed posts.
Almost all of the 192 examples of this unusual treatment of the dead, which has never before been documented in the region, were identified inside or near to indigenous graves known as chullpas. Hundreds of these chullpas are found scattered around the Chincha Valley, which was home to the Chincha Kingdom from c.AD 1,000 until c.AD 1400, when they formed an alliance with – and were eventually consolidated into – the Inca empire. But just over a century later, all of the indigenous populations of the area were devastated by the arrival of European colonists.
The ‘vertebrae-on-posts’ – as researchers refer to them – have been radiocarbon dated to this period of great instability, AD 1450-1640, with the majority falling between 1545 and 1650. This was a time of catastrophic famines and epidemics, which caused the local population to decline from 30,000 heads of households in 1533 to just 979 in 1583. Looting and destruction of the graves of indigenous communities was widespread, carried out by European colonists whose main target was gold and silver grave goods in these burials, but also wanted to suppress the religious practices and funerary customs of indigenous peoples.
Several different interpretations have been proposed for the vertebrae-on-posts, but researchers believe that it is likely that this practice was connected in some way to the damage caused by looting. Bioarchaeological analysis indicates that the vertebrae were threaded on to the reeds at an advanced stage of decomposition, suggesting that the individuals had died and received primary burial in the chullpas several decades earlier, with local people returning to the chullpas at a later date in order to reconstruct the disturbed remains of their dead.
Bodily integrity after death was an important part of the belief system of local people in South America. There are records, for example, of communities in the Andes salvaging the remains of mummies destroyed by Europeans and using what they could to make new ritual objects. The vertebrae-on-posts in the Chincha Valley may be part of the same phenomenon – an attempt to restore the bodily integrity of the dead, which had been destroyed by looters. Analysis revealed that in most examples, each of the posts held the bones of a single individual, further supporting this interpretation. This practice is also a fascinating reflection of the ways in which the social lives of individuals can carry on after death.
The research has recently been published in Antiquity (https://doi.org/10.15184/aqy.2021.180).