500 years ago, ancient Peruvians used human remains to challenge colonialism
At the beginning, the the reeds adorned with human vertebrae and skulls seemed too macabre to be anything more than a bad joke. When archaeologist Jacob Bongers and his team discovered the strange sight of Peru’s Chincha Valley, they blamed it on looters who had come before, disturbed ancient graves in the area, and left the reeds as a map of visit. The locals knew all about the stick skeletons – but when Bongers asked about them, all they told him, he said, was that “they are old. They are definitely old. But beyond that, their origin and purpose has remained a mystery to archaeologists – one they have become determined to solve.
The anthropological archaeologist, who works at the University of East Anglia, says part of the mystery comes from the fact that the Chincha Valley was well-traveled ground for archaeologists. Certainly, he supposed, someone must have noticed the reeds covered with disarticulated human vertebrae?
“We’re not the first to do fieldwork in this valley, so why haven’t they been documented before by other researchers?” Bongers tells Reverse. Since he first came across a post in 2012, Bongers has found 200 of these skeletal posts at dozens of burial sites in Peru.
You’d think messages strung with pieces of human spine would inspire curiosity, but Bongers believes he and his team are the first to systematically analyze these bones. In a new study published in the journal antiquity, Bongers and his team detail the results of their analysis of a subsample of bones collected at 79 posts with radiocarbon dating methods. Armed with this data, he thinks he may have found where the bones came from.
Discovery – Calculating the approximate age of the bones and reed poles, Bongers hypothesizes that the poles may have been created by indigenous peoples in an attempt to reconstruct the bodies of ancient Peruvians, who once lay in graves. plundered by the Spanish colonizers. The bones themselves date back to between 1520 and 1550 CE, while the reeds are from a later time, between 1550 and 1590. This age discrepancy is key to supporting Bongers’ theory.
The bones offer a glimpse of the chaos wrought by settlers in South America; but also a series of gruesome events in the contemporary Chincha kingdom itself.
The Chincha Kingdom had ruled over the land where the bones are now located until the 1400s, when it merged with the Inca Empire. At that time, the indigenous peoples suffered from famines and epidemics, killing many people. When European colonizers arrived in the 1500s, they pillaged chullpas, or ritual tombs, for gold and silver. They also often disturbed human remains in graves.
Why is it important – Bongers argues that the decorated reeds that may have been erected by Indigenous peoples are a means of literally reconstructing their dead in response to colonizer atrocities.
“What this discovery shows is that Indigenous peoples are adapting to difficult circumstances and finding a way to maintain connections with their dead,” he says.
“These body parts continue to live out these social lives,” Bongers says. Essentially, the posts stacked with bones tell the story of how a civilization reacted to invasion and death.
Beth Scaffidi, an anthropologist at the University of California at Merced who was not involved in the study, agrees.
“Old bodies in the imagination aren’t those things that stay there,” she says. Reverse. “They are animated, every part of the body, even the vertebrae. So there is a world in which we can see this explanation where they are reforming these bodies as a means of resisting or defeating the practices of colonial plunder.
Dig into the details — Scaffildi says Bongers’ hypothesis matches what we know about how the dead were treated in that region at the time. Andean peoples have long revered their dead with specific rituals.
The discrepancy between reed and bone ages supports Bongers’ theory.
“Even before the dates came back, it was like, ‘This is kind of a goofy theory. What if that was what really happened? » Bongers tells Reverse. The fact that the bones are older than the reeds and that the date of the reeds coincides with colonization supports the story that the colonizers disturbed the graves of the already dead and the natives rebuilt their backbones.
“It was a sort of indigenous, ritualized response to European colonialism.”
Some clues suggest that these erected posts are reconstituted. On the one hand, the vertebrae are disarticulated or separated at the joint. Each vertebra is disconnected and someone has arranged them on a pole – not necessarily in their original order. This suggests that whoever built these posts was using bones already disconnected from each other – possibly destroyed by colonizers.
Still, there are other explanations for who erected these poles and what their purpose was worth considering, Bongers says.
“My favorite is…that maybe they were rattles used in funeral ceremonies,” Bongers says. Or, they could have been trophies to boast about conquering their enemies.
Scaffidi says it’s possible that these artifacts played all of these roles at once, and these different roles in cultural life are not mutually exclusive. A trophy from an enemy warrior could have been reconstructed as a statement of defiance in the face of colonizers, she theorizes.
And after – While these bones have continued to live social lives for centuries, their time as windows to the past has only just begun. Bongers says a future study could conduct DNA analysis on these bones, which could help answer the question of whether the chullpas were family graves or, on the contrary, looked more like mass graves.
According to Scaffidi, the preserved vertebrae can be “a little crumbly,” but they can also offer revealing information about how people also lived. The bones can reveal new details about a person’s diet during the last year of their life, for example, and offer clues to their social status and role in culture. While all of this information taken separately may seem like mere anecdote, together it paints a rich and detailed picture of a civilization at a pivotal moment in history.