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Ancient spines threaded onto sticks found in Peru

Published: 04th February, 2022 at 04:00
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The strange burial practice was discovered in the Chincha Valley on the Pacific Coast of Peru.

Researchers working in Peru have unearthed 192 human spines that were ceremonially threaded onto posts made of reeds 500 years ago. The discovery, published in the journal Antiquity, highlights an Andean burial tradition that has only been found in this specific area of Western Peru, which is known as the Chincha Valley.

Teams of archeologists excavated 20 sites around the region, and found the spines in elaborate graves known as chullpas. The fact that these ‘vertebrae-on-posts’ were discovered at multiple sites may suggest this was a common and well-known practice, they say.

It is thought that the spines were reconstructed and held-together with reeds many years after death, possibly due to the graves being looted and damaged by European settlers. The dead being buried intact was an important part of the culture of the Chincha people, so their reconstruction and reinterment would have been highly significant.

This coastal region was once the heartland of the Chincha Kingdom, but between 1533 and 1583 its population declined massively due to epidemics, famines and the arrival of foreign invaders.

Unearthing the posts

Vertebrae-on-postsassociatedwithdisturbedtextilebundles. scales in cm. Photo by J L Bongers
Vertebrae in-situ at one of the excavation sites in the Chincha Valley, Peru. Photo by Jacob L Bongers

Craniums at the dig site

Vertebrae-on-postsassociatedwithdisturbedtextilebundles(scalesincm;photographsbyJ.L.Bongers)
Vertebrae and human skulls in-situ at one of the excavation sites, showing textile bundles on their right-hand-side. Photo by Jacob L Bongers

Vertebrae-on-posts

Examples of vertebrae on posts. Photo by C O’Shea
After being removed from multiple excavation sites, examples of vertebrae-on-posts found at the Chincha Valley were documented and carbon-dated. They are thought to date from the Late Horizon (1400–1532 AD) and Colonial (1532–1825 AD) periods. Photo by C O’Shea

Graves filled with bones

Chullpa graves
An elaborately built grave, known as a Chullpa, is shown here partially excavated, and full of human remains. Photo by Jacob L Bongers

Cranium and spine

Cranium and threaded spine
Vertebrae-on-post inserted into a cranium, as found within a chullpa. This was the only example unearthed where the head was still attached to the spinal column. Photo by Jacob L Bongers

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Spine example

Spine threaded with a reed post
An image showing parts of a spine featuring lumbar, cervical and thoracic elements pierced by a post. The sequence of vertebrae does not correspond with the correct anatomical sequence of the human spine, which may suggest that anatomic accuracy was not important in the burial process. Photo by Jacob L Bongers

Human remains

vertebrae-on-post
A vertebrae-on-post pictured in-situ, in the middle Chincha Valley, Peru. Photo by Jacob L Bongers

The Chincha Valley, Peru

Aerial view Chincha Valley
Aerial photo of UC-048, one of the largest cemeteries in the middle of Chincha Valley, where several vertebrae-on-posts were excavated. Photo by Jacob L Bongers

Authors

James CutmorePicture Editor, BBC Science Focus

James Cutmore is the picture editor of BBC Science Focus Magazine, researching striking images for the magazine and on the website. He is also has a passion for taking his own photographs

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