Chinchorro Inhabit the Peruvian and Chilean Coasts

The fisher folk living along the Peruvian and Chilean coasts created the world’s earliest intentional mummies, two thousand years older than those of Egypt.

Summary of Event

The oldest intentionally prepared mummies in the world, which are at least two millennia older than those found in Egypt, were found on the southern coast of Peru and the northern coast of Chile. These mummies were first reported in the scientific literature in 1917 by Max Uhle, and the Chilean archaeologists have named the culture Chinchorro, after the location where Uhle first identified the remains. The Chinchorro tradition evolved from an earlier group of maritime gatherers roughly 10,000 to 8,000 years ago. The early groups had little specialized technology but were mainly generalized maritime collectors, supplementing their economies with inland plants and animals.

With the Chinchorro tradition, however, came the first true fishermen, c. 6000-5800 b.c.e., who developed fishhooks made of shell and nets and harpoons with detachable heads. They lived in villages with small circular huts of cane and matting with stone foundations and plastered clay floors. The people fished, collected shellfish, hunted sea lions, and cut up beached whales. Bone chemistry analyses indicate that roughly 90 percent of the diet was marine-based. Some of the adult mummies from phases after about 4500 b.c.e. exhibit auditory exostoses or aural osteomas, a pathological condition related to deep-sea diving, indicating yet another new marine exploitative technique.

More than 1,500 Chinchorro burials are known, although fewer than 250 elaborate mummies have been recovered. The period of intentionally modified mummification practices runs from roughly 5800 to 1700 b.c.e. There are four main varieties of the mummy preparation. The least important is the treatment of essentially naturally mummified bodies; these mummies occur as early as 7000 b.c.e., at the early end of the sequence, and again during the last few millennia, at the late end of the sequence. Early examples may have their faces painted in designs with red ocher and black manganese and may be wrapped in mats or animal skins; the very late examples are wrapped in elaborate woven woolen and cotton textiles, but otherwise little else is done except to let the hot, dry sands naturally desiccate the bodies.

Beginning at 5800 b.c.e. and persisting until 2800 b.c.e., however, is the most complex variety of artificial treatment, sometimes known as the “black mummies” because of the black manganese used to draw facial features and other designs on this class of mummies. The skin was slit open and removed in segments, then treated to arrest deterioration (early on with salt, later with other procedures). All the internal organs were removed and discarded, and the brain was extracted through the occipital hole. The body was then defleshed and disassembled, and the main muscle masses were removed by stone and shell tools. The interior of the body was then dried by means of fire embers or hot ashes; long bones may have been dried out over campfires.

After the body was thus disassembled, prepared, and dried, it was ready to be reconstructed into the mummy. The main body cavity was filled with ash and clay. Next the corpse was reinforced and stiffened with an elongated piece of wood attached along the vertebral column, and the limbs were reassembled using cane or wooden shafts for support structure. The kneecaps and elbow joints were rasped and filed down to help make the limbs rigid. The limbs were wrapped with mats of woven rushes and then tightly wrapped with cords for reinforcement. The preserved skin was adjusted and sewn back onto the whole body in patches, like a glove. To restore some appearance of life, the body was coated with a layer of clay, in a kind of modeling, and often decorated in black, with manganese-based pigments; hence the name black mummies. The face was likewise modeled in white clay and sculpted into a mask with eyes and mouth indicated by holes and incisions that were sometimes outlined in black. In some later examples, false teeth were added to the mouths. Both male and female sexual organs were often modeled in clay. The end result was a kind of sophisticated rigid vertical statue.

The “red mummies” period followed, beginning roughly 2800 b.c.e. and lasting until 2100. The preparation of the corpse was not quite as elaborate during this period. Red mummies were prepared without disarticulation (the limbs being separated from the body). They were partially eviscerated, and the body cavity was dried over coals. Incisions were made, and sticks were slid under the skin to add rigidity to the body, and then the incisions were sewn back together. The body was stuffed with ashes, soil, grass, shells, feathers, or other fill. Like the black mummies, the red mummies were covered with an exterior coat of clay to permit sculpting and painting of facial and body details, although body modeling was less detailed. As a finishing touch, wigs of human hair were often fixed on the skull.

The last major intentionally fabricated type of mummy was the mud-coated variety. This type was found from 2100 to 1700 b.c.e. The corpses were smoke-dried by fire but were not reinforced; then the body was covered with a thick layer of mud and painted, usually in the red mummies style. The mummies were often wrapped in mats or textiles. After 1700, local residents appear simply to have relied on natural desiccation in the hot sands, even though they continued to inter the dead wrapped in textiles and mats.

Because the Chinchorro mummy tradition lasted more than four thousand years, it should not be surprising that the material culture of the group changed, and the purposes for producing the mummies may have changed as well. Thus, for example, plant foods become more important after roughly 4000 b.c.e.; sites have more grinding stones, plants such as manioc and quinoa are found as offerings and in desiccated human scats (excrement), and more inland animals get added to the diet. Early mummies are associated with only mats, twined textiles, and basketry, but by later periods, woven textiles of cotton and wool are common, and “repp” (or ribbed) geometric design woolen belts are added. Headgear of later mummies sometimes includes woven turbans and “crowns” made from red, yellow, and blue tropical parrot feathers. In later periods, other animals, such as birds and dogs, are also treated with the same mummification techniques. Highland obsidian artifacts come in with the textiles. Additional ritual gear begins to occur. With the black mummies are some of the earliest examples of the South Andean hallucinogenic complex, with snuff, snuff trays, inhaling tubes, spatulas, brushes, boxes, and other ritual containers associated with the mummies.


Many of the early Chinchorro mummies were children, leading some scholars to suggest the possibility of a special adoration of children, but at the early cemetery of Morro 1, the mummies recovered included forty-two children and fifty-four adults, so it is evident that adults were not being ignored. The rigidity of the mummies is thought to have been a deliberate feature to aid families in transporting their dead from site to site; it is therefore believed that the mummies were meant to be accessible to the living for an extended period of time before final disposal by interment. Some of the mummies exhibit considerable surface damage that was later repaired. There is evidence that the facial clay masks were refinished, body surfaces were repainted, and damaged body extremities were repaired. In some cases, several different types of clay have been applied in different repairs, suggesting a prolonged period of ritual use of the mummies. At some point, the mummies were finally interred, sometimes as family groups, other times apparently as individuals. Exactly when and why this final interment occurred is not yet clear. Mummification continued until the Spanish Conquest in 1519, notably by the last Incas to honor their emperors.

Further Reading

  • Arriaza, Bernardo. Beyond Death: The Chinchorro Mummies of Ancient Chile. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1995. Discusses the origins, construction, and evolution of the Chinchorro mummies, with definitive details.
  • Lavallee, Daniele. The First South Americans. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 2000. An overall view of the early cultures of South America that places Chinchorro in a wider context. Contains chapters on the origins and development of archaic maritime cultures along the Peruvian and Chilean coast.
  • Llagostera, Agustin. “Early Occupations and the Emergence of Fishermen on the Pacific Coast of South America.” Andean Past 3 (1992): 87-111. Deals with the emergence of maritime specialization on the Peruvian and Chilean coasts in the early Holocene, establishing the context for the development of the Chinchorro mummy complex.
  • Núñez, Lautaro. “Archaic Adaptation on the South-Central Andean Coast.” In Pacific Latin America in Prehistory, edited by Michael Blake. Pullman: Washington State University, 1998. Review of the Archaic period cultures of the south-central Pacific coast, detailing the beginnings of maritime specialization and reviewing the Chinchorro complex.
  • Rivera, Mario. “The Preceramic Chinchorro Mummy Complex of Northern Chile.” In Tombs for the Living: Andean Mortuary Practices, edited by Tom Dillehay. Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, 1995. Discussion of the Chinchorro peoples by an archaeologist who has devoted his lifetime to studying the people, placing the mummy activities in a wider complex.