‘Spines on Posts’ in 16th-century Peru May Stem From Conquistador Looting

Vertebrae from robbed burials, strung together on reeds in the Chincha Valley may have been put together by people picking up the pieces of their ancestors

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Examples of vertebrae-on-posts
Examples of vertebrae-on-reed posts Credit: C. O’Shea/Antiquity Publications Ltd
Andrew Califf
Andrew Califf
Andrew Califf
Andrew Califf

Ancient funerary structures known as chullpas are scattered across the Chincha Valley of Peru. The chullpas seem to have been constructed to be easily accessible, possibly so that the remains could be visited and removed for rituals connected with ancestor worship.

But this very accessibility is partly why more than 500 surveyed sites were looted.

Luckily for posterity, the looters weren’t looking for skeletal remains and left behind what the excavators are referring to as “vertebrae-on-posts.”

More accurately, what the archaeologists have found are vertebrae threaded together through the holes left by the spina cord using stiff reeds, eerily like friendship bracelets. The finds may illustrate what had been a turbulent time for the Chincha people.

Aerial view of cullpas in the Chincha Valley, PeruCredit: Jacob L. Bongers

An article recently published in the journal Antiquity postulates that these unique artifacts of post-mortem manipulation were created by the indigenous peoples in response to colonial looting approximately 500 years ago. They picked up the pieces and tried to put their ancestors back together, the theory suggests.

Archaeologists have documented almost 200 sets of these makeshift spinal columns; one even had a skull. They look very much like the fictional Predator’s hunting trophies.

But Jacob Bongers from the University of East Anglia thinks the root cause was something arguably worse than the sci-fi alien: Conquistadors.

Treasure hunting, with violence

Spanish forces arrived in what is now Peru in 1532 C.E., about half a century after the Chincha Kingdom had allied with the Incan Empire in around 1480 C.E. The transition to the Incan Empire was supposedly peaceful, but then came the colonial period, and the indigenous peoples faced famine and epidemics. During this colonial period, the population of Chincha declined from about 30,000 “heads of household” in 1533 to just 979 by the year 1583.

Meanwhile the Spanish were busy. “When the Spanish came in and looted these tombs, they are ripping up textile bundles and looking for gold, they are looking for silver,” said Bongers. “You can imagine it being a fairly violent act, bodies and body parts are being scattered about.”

Vertebrae-on-posts were associated with disturbed textile bundlesCredit: J.L. Bongers
ChullpasCredit: photographs by J.L. Bongers/Anti

The majority of the vertebrae sets strung on reeds were disarticulated and not in proper anatomical order. They seem to have been reconstructed from a state of chaos and advanced decomposition by Chincha peoples.

The dates of the artifacts – the bones strung on reeds – may shed light on the rationale for creating them.

Calibrated radiocarbon dates for three vertebrae samples place the death of the individuals between 1520 to 1550 C.E. Whereas, dates from the reeds holding them together show they were harvested later, between 1550 to 1590 C.E.

The deaths directly correlate to the dramatic decrease in population, and the reeds were harvested after the documented Spanish grave robbing.

“The dates are the smoking gun in this case, they are so tightly bound around when the Spanish come in, when they are looting these tombs,” Bongers said. “It just seems this model best aligns with the dates.”

Vertebrae-on-post with disturbed burialCredit: Jacob L. Bongers
View of the Chincha ValleyCredit: Michael Rosales

Evidence of child soldiers?

These dates support the theory that the Chincha reconstructed spines from vertebrae that were scattered by looting conquistadores, but one question is why they would do so.

There are several theories, including a mode of transportation to carry deceased individuals to the chullpas, trophies (in which case the backbones wouldn’t be from venerated ancestors but from enemies), ceremonial purposes, staking territorial claims – or even, one of Bonger’s Ph.D. committee members suggested, baby rattles. That is unlikely on multiple grounds, one being size; and there is no archaeological evidence for baby showers, but there is evidence of violence.

Traumatized crania associated with the reed-threaded vertebrae and the general turbulence of the time support the trophy theory.

Some of the vertebrae came from adolescents. Bongers personally wonders if they would create trophies from children’s bodies but it bears adding that child soldiers were known in the distant past, for instance in Mesopotamia, and are involved in warfare in various places to this day.

Alternatively, it is possible that recreating spines with reeds was part of a preexisting culture of mortuary rituals such as creating a form for parading ancestors around for ritual purposes. Bongers even raises the parallel with reeds and sticks being used to maintain rigidity in the Chinchorro mummies from the edges of the Atacama Desert, who predate the Egyptian mummies by thousands of years.

Some Chincha chullpas in other areas of the valley also feature reed-strung vertebrae like at the looted sites, and they are associated with intact burial bundles. These bone structures have yet to be dated, but this does suggest that a specific method of post-mortem manipulation was around independent of Spanish looting.

Regardless of Spanish meddling, the use of reeds to string together the vertebrae is enigmatic. Bongers and the team refer to the reed connecting the vertebrae as “posts,” calling them vertebrae-on-posts, but that seems to be a misnomer as reeds might not result in the rigidity typical of a living spine. Or, perhaps the reeds did function as posts, at least for a time: placed in the ground to vertically prop up the spines and skulls.

“You could actually imagine putting the post down, putting the vertebrae down, and then putting the skull on the reed. Now, the reed isn’t necessarily that strong,” he said. “So who knows if it would have been kept upright?”

Only one reed spine was found with a skull, but if they could stay upright for a time, the skulls may have rolled away over the course of 500 years.

Vertebrae-on-post inserted into a cranium, as found within a chullpaCredit: J. Gmez Meja/Antiquity Publi

Some of the chullpas were set up with their openings facing an open area where rituals are believed to have taken place; and some of the reed posts with sets of vertebrae were found outside of the chullpas.

Manipulating the dead

It’s worth adding that many cultures throughout Peru and the Andes have documented practices of delayed burial and removal of bodies or parts of bodies subsequent to interment for various events, rituals, ceremonies and so on, going back thousands of years. Bongers and colleagues note for example date, trophy heads were found in Nasca dating to the 1st to 8th centuries C.E.; the Inca were reported to fashion drums from human skin and to carve skulls into drinking cups as trophies during the 15th and 16th centuries.

The Moche culture as well as many groups in the highlands are believed to have periodically removed bodies and body parts (especially hands) for rituals involving the social presence of the individual.

Credit: J. Gmez Meja/Antiquity Publi

As for the chullpas, they are quite uniform and ubiquitous throughout the region, and varying post-mortem practices are thought to be involved but these are not thoroughly understood valley to valley and culture to culture.

The Chincha Valley also features traces of another type of post-mortem treatment: the application of red pigment to the bodies. There are traces of these red pigments on bones and skin and the vertebrae on posts share chullpas with these pigmented remains, all scattered and disturbed.

The vertebrae have no consistent signs of deliberately applied pigment. Bongers doesn’t think that the very small specks found on them were intentional, and is currently trying to put together data from the pigmented remains and the vertebrae posts to develop a better understanding of Chincha mortuary practices.

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