Wednesday, March 7, 2012

The Grinning Skeletons of Peru's 1000-Year-Old Nazca Cemetery

Screaming or laughing?

In a sand-dusted cemetery in the desert, 30 kilometers south of the city of Nazca in Peru, lie the skeletal remains of an ancient people. Inside the open tombs there are not simply scattered bones but whole human mummies, as well as archeological artifacts. Skulls leer up at those souls who venture down the dirt track that leads to this sepulchral site; skeletons in virtually the same ghastly poses in which they were frozen a millennium and more ago. If you ever wanted to see what you might look like after death, these figures – complete with hair – offer a glimpse. Do ghosts haunt this creepy South American burial ground? We wouldn’t be surprised.
Chauchilla Cemetery was discovered in the 1920s, yet the last time it was used was back in the 9th century AD. Moreover, the first use of the timeworn necropolis dates deeper still in the mists of time, as early as 200 AD. The length of time for which this place of death served its purpose – together with the important burials to be found here – only adds to the sense of intrigue that pervades the desert site.
Unfortunately the dead in this Peruvian graveyard – also known as ‘Death Valley’– were not permitted to rest in peace. Over the years, huaqueros – grave robbers, known for destroying archaeological sites – dug up the tombs, stole many of the treasures that lay therein, and littered the surrounding area with the remains of people and pottery fragments alike.
Whether the aforementioned raiders were cursed for their looting and destruction we’ll leave for your imagination to decide. What is certain is that the Peruvian authorities passed a law to protect the cemetery in 1997. Furthermore, those behind the restoration operation managed to find many of the ceramic objects and human remains and return them to their rightful resting places.
In keeping with the traditions of the Nazca culture from which they were born, all the remarkably well-preserved corpses face east and are positioned crouched and sitting up, as if eager to greet visitors – be they welcome or not. Amazingly, the heads of these long-dead individuals still have hair – lots of it in some cases – and even pieces of soft tissue remain, skin that has stayed intact over the centuries under the sun.
There are a number of reasons why the mummification process of those interred in Chauchilla Cemetery proved to be so successful. First and foremost: the bone-dry climate of the Peruvian desert itself. Among the most arid places on the planet, this environment aided in the preservation of the corpses a great deal, protecting them against the ravages of moisture and rot.
Notwithstanding the hot, dry natural conditions, the preparations for the dead employed by the Nazca also contributed to how well the corpses were preserved. These ancients embalmed the dead in a layer of resin, dressed them in embroidered cotton, and then buried them in special vaults built out of mud bricks. The textiles and resin used are both believed to have helped keep insects at bay while also limiting the speed at which bacteria would cause the bodies to decay.
Another archaeological site near to Chauchilla Cemetery might also hold some clues as to the preservation methods used. In Estaqueria, archaeologists have unearthed wooden posts that research suggests were used to dry out the dead bodies. It seems funeral rites and natural forces conspired brilliantly to make the mummification formula work so well.
Some sources refer to the bodies found at Chauchilla as those of shamans. These spirit-connected persons were highly respected in their communities and upon burial may well have been bestowed with precious earthly possessions such as stone tools and ceramics to take with them into the afterlife. One of the best-preserved mummies is sealed off by glass and surrounded by artifacts, though as we can see, many of the skeletons, pottery shards and fabrics have been left exposed to the elements.
Nazca culture itself thrived between 100 and 800 AD, but, like the cemetery itself, its history can be traced back much earlier in time. The Nazca created many wonderful crafts including ceramics and textiles, while some of their feats of engineering, subterranean aqueducts, incredibly still work to this day. Yet this was also a culture with a more macabre side. So-called partial burials of people were commonplace, for example, with sites discovered containing decapitated heads and dismembered bodies. Most of the people buried in Chauchilla Cemetery appear to have gotten off lightly.
Nowadays it’s said that local people call Chauchilla Cemetery the "tomb of horror and grief." Could this have to do with the fact that the graves were plundered and the bodies disturbed, such that the unwelcome guests had terrible events visited upon them? Some say it’s so. And yet, interestingly, even eerier happenings are apparently associated with this place…
Locals tell tales of bright lights and moving objects seen in the cemetery at night. The suggestion seems to be that these sightings are connected with paranormal activity of some kind – but whether ghosts or UFOs we can but guess. Then again, perhaps unexplained goings-on here shouldn’t surprise us. We are, after all, in the vicinity of the Nazca Lines – those famous giant designs, many depicting animals, etched into the ground and visible from the air.
Some might dismiss the strange activities purportedly witnessed in Chauchilla Cemetery as nothing more than trespassing treasure hunters – would-be grave robbers more likely to work at night. The fact that the events took place before the authorities took over and protected the site seems to lend credibility to this theory. And, of course, skeptics will always have their own standpoint…
In spite of any skepticism, however, the curious stories surrounding the location persist. One Adolfo Bniaval claims: "None of us can deny the existence of these strange lights. [There] were dozens of people [who] saw them on several occasions and there are a number of certificates stored in the municipality of Nazca which confirms the truth of these views."
What more could a visitor to Chauchilla Cemetery want (and all for as little as seven US dollars)? Mummies amid tombs, piles of bones, grinning skulls and tales of unexplained phenomena combine to make this place a must-see for anyone fascinated by the mysterious and the downright creepy. And who these long-dead people really were – how they lived and how they died – is difficult, if not impossible, to fathom.

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