Cemetery of Chauchilla

November 18th, 2008

Laying untouched for centuries, this isolated spot in the dry Nazcan desert was used as a place to bury and preserve the mummified dead of the Nazca culture. Since then, the countless hundreds of tombs found here have been pillaged and destroyed. What remains is at first a fascinating sight for visitors – bones, ceramics and cloth scattered across the sands, pieces of ancient fabric blowing around in the wind – but that fascination soon turns to despair as you realise the amount of precious historical information lost.

Ancient textiles in the desert sands

Ancient textiles in the sands

It almost looks like another planet, perhaps the moon. Crater after crater as far as you can see. These aren’t meteor impacts though, these were once the tombs of important members of the ancient Nasca society. It is they who inhabited this region of Ica from roughly 200B.C. to the coming of the Wari in the 700’s A.D.

These tombs, hundreds of them, were destroyed by tomb robbers in the past century. Fuelled by demand from wealthier parts of the world, the local poor – made so by the ways of their conquerors – ransacked the resting places of their ancestors destroying untold amounts of archaeological information. Pottery, metals, fine weaving and other objects were sold for thousands of dollars, while thousands of years of history were lost.

Despite the damage, a few complete bodies were found. So too were several tomb walls, giving us clues as to how burials took place – for example, bodies always faced the rising sun. One of the best preserved is in the site museum, still with skin and hair.

A Nazcan

A Nazcan

Some examples of beautiful tapestries have been saved from the fate of being locked up in a private collection of a North American or European millionaire, and are on display to the public. Lesser cloth is found blowing around in the wind, or poking out of the sandy top-soil.

In the surviving tombs, some of the finds – bones, skulls and even intact mummies have been placed as they would have been. Visitors can walk around each of these and get a feel of how Chauchilla may once have been.

Perhaps the most interesting fact these mummies tell us is how the Nazcan people looked physically. Far from being the impoverished short Peruvians of the past five centuries, your typical well-fed and well nourished Nascan was a tall 1.7m or or 5’6″. Few Europeans were that tall in 500A.D.

Also fascinating is the Nazcan’s long dreaded hair, so long that if it were let down, it would trail along behind them as they walked. Many of the bodies found still sport this long hair, trend-setters for Caribbean peoples 1500 years later.

Visiting the site from Nasca is easy, it’s just 30km away, reachable by taxi for S./40. Make sure you ask for a ticket when you pay the small entrance fee, so you know the money is going to fund the preservation of the site.

Photos –

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