NOTE - All photos courtesy Dr. Justin Jennings
A team of researchers, investigating artefacts and skeletons from a site called “La Real,” in Peru, have come across evidence of an unusual ritual.
They discovered that about 1,400 years ago people at the site were carefully bundling up their dead into mummies by using a sack, twine, textiles and a headdress. Then, after all this work was completed, they ripped them apart.
“The mummy bundles have been slashed open,” said Dr. Justin Jennings, of the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto Canada, who is co-director of the team analyzing the remains. “We didn’t find a single (intact) mummy bundle.”
The work that went into this practice was considerable. “Imagine sewing all your clothes and then ripping them up.”
The site at La Real, located in the Majes Valley, consists of a sealed cave containing mummies, and an outlying structure which has what appears to be offerings. More than 100 mummies were buried in the cave along with a layer of animal remains including a puma foot, dog heads, parrot heads, llamas and even the remains of a condor.
Nearly 700 ceramics and 1,200 textiles were discovered at the site along with food offerings, such as peanuts. Several examples of exotic goods were also found including silver and gold embossed plaques, feathered textiles and, most gruesomely, seven human trophy skulls, each with a thread at the top to use as a hanger.
La Real was discovered in 1991 when workers expanding a soccer field came across the sealed up cave. Archaeologists were called in and a salvage excavation was carried out, with the aim being to excavate, catalogue and store the material. Recently a team led by Justin Jennings and Willy Yépez Alvarez re-opened the investigation – analyzing the human remains and artefacts in an effort to determine what was happening at the site.
“This is not a swash-buckling story of excavation,” said Dr. Jennings, “this is us in the lab, doggedly trying to put these things together – that was actually quite a task.”
Jennings discussed the team’s findings at an archaeological conference in Toronto last weekend.
“Extreme” levels of violence
When the team analyzed the skeletal remains of the mummies they discovered that, when the people were alive, they suffered from an “extreme” level of violence.
“At La Real, 32 out of 104 adult crania with at least half of their cranial vault bones present show at least one head wound,” writes Dr. Tiffiny Tung, of the Department of Anthropology at Vanderbilt University, in a paper published in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology.
She analyzed the skeletons whose sex could be determined and noticed that men were more likely to die a violent death then women. “Among these crania, 16 out of 39 males (41%) and five out of 26 females (19%) exhibit wounds.”
Jennings said that the results get even gorier. “What’s interesting is oftentimes there would be multiple blows to the head suggesting of course they’d survived one blow, it would heal up, and then they would get hit again,” he said. “The (aim) was not to kill but simply just to bonk on the head.”
Curiously the researchers found that men were more likely to be hit in front of the head, while women were hit more often in the back. Jennings said that the men may have been engaged in “face to face combat or violence.”
Tung noted that in later times, when Europeans came to the Andes, they recorded evidence of a ritualistic style of fighting. “Tinku is a ritual battle in which men (and sometimes women) square off and fight with fists or maces, or they hurl stones at each other with slings,” she writes. This is a practice that can lead to “serious skull fractures.”
Why slash apart mummies?
The big question is why would the people who lived near La Real hack apart the mummified bodies of their own people?
“You do have a violent reaction against the mummies that you don’t usually see,” said Jennings. “People will have respect for the dead, even if they’re killing the living.”
The fact that the cave’s seal was intact, and precious metals found inside, suggests that it wasn’t done by grave robbers or invaders.
Jennings pointed out that in addition to slashing the mummies the people also destroyed objects. They hacked textiles apart, smashed pots, set them on fire and scattered their remains in the cave. “Not only have you broken and shredded these (but) then you go ahead and add fire to the equation,” he said.
Jennings said that social changes that were happening in the region may hold the key to understanding what was going on at La Real.
Archaeological evidence shows that around 1,400 years ago people in the Majes Valley were being incorporated into a civilization known as the Wari. Society in the region was changing from one that was largely egalitarian, to one that had large class differences.
“Wari influence is important because Wari ideas are very much about social stratification, about power, about the role of elites,” said Jennings. “You’re seeing gold, feather work, textiles, (this) seems to be suggesting the beginning of social stratification.”
The destruction of the mummies at La Real may be a reaction to this, “although people were willing to accept those newfound statuses in life, it was a different story in death,” said Jennings. “It seems to me in some sense to be almost a violent reaction,” he said, “its anti-status.”
He compared the situation to the 2004 United States presidential election when John Kerry, a somewhat unpopular senator, was running against George W. Bush, a deeply divisive president.
“You weren’t voting for Kerry, you were voting against Bush,” said Jennings. “In some sense this may be the same kind of thing – you’re voting against us in death.”
The people of La Real objected to the fact that their society was becoming more unequal. Even though they were powerless to stop it in life, they thought they could do something about it in death.
“I think La Real captures those 200 – 300 years were there was an active role being played by people trying to fight against these changes.”