In 2012, archaeologists were excavating a series of large stone tombs in Peru’s Chincha Valley when they found something none of them had ever seen before: human vertebrae threaded onto a reed, almost like a spinal abacus. Over the next 10 years, researchers found nearly 200 such remains in the same valley. At first, they wondered whether local children had skewered the backbones as a joke. But farmers working in the region told the researchers, no, this wasn’t the work of pranksters. These bones, they said, are antiguos—very ancient.
A new study based on radiocarbon dating backs their claim, suggesting the vertebrae-on-posts, as they’re known, are some 500 years old. The artifacts may have been an attempt to reassemble the bodies of departed loved ones whose graves had been desecrated by ransacking Spanish colonizers, the researchers report.
“That makes sense given [Andean] cultural views and worldviews,” says Tiffiny Tung, a bioarchaeologist at Vanderbilt University who wasn’t involved with the work. “It aligns really well with the notion that the ancestors are still part of the community, and you have an intense obligation to care for them.”
The Chincha Kingdom was a small, wealthy group of farmers, fishers, weavers, and merchants who lived near Peru’s southwestern coast beginning in the 11th century. Like many Andean peoples, the Chincha venerated their ancestors and believed in the importance of maintaining bodily integrity after death. Often, they mummified and buried their loved ones’ remains in elaborate stone towers known as chullpas. The Chincha Kingdom was incorporated into the Inca Empire near the turn of the 15th century, but retained some degree of autonomy.
Spanish explorers arrived in 1534, and soon after, tens of thousands of the valley’s Indigenous residents died of famine and disease. The Catholic Spaniards wanted to end the Chincha people’s veneration of their ancestors—in part to convert them to Christianity, and in part to separate them from their sacred lands, Tung says. So they engaged in a practice sanctioned by the Spanish crown called the “extirpation of idolatry.” According to the 16th century Peruvian historian Pedro Cieza de León, the Spaniards looted an “enormous” number of graves, removing gold burial goods and desecrating the bodies within.
The Chincha people—whose descendants still live in the valley—resisted these attempts to root out their beliefs, says Jacob Bongers, an archaeologist at the University of East Anglia who led the new study. “You have cases where these people would go back into desecrated tombs and use hair and nails and so forth to recreate effigies of the dead,” he says. “It was so important for these people to maintain long-term connections with their dead, which stood in opposition to what the Europeans were trying to instill.”
Could the vertebrae-on-posts be a heretofore unknown example of mortuary rebellion? To find out, Bongers and colleagues cataloged 192 examples found within or just outside chullpas at dozens of burial sites across the middle and lower Chincha Valley. Based on their skeletal development, most of the vertebrae belonged to adults, but a few came from juveniles. Only a single instance featured a skull mounted on top of the reed. Extensive looting of the graves made it difficult to learn much more about the individuals buried there, Bongers says. (Although DNA evidence hasn’t yet linked the vertebrae to the Chincha, genomes previously sequenced from teeth found in one of the chullpas show the people buried there were closely related to ancient and modern people from the Peruvian coast.)
Next, the researchers radiocarbon dated three bones and nine reeds. The ages of the bones placed their owners’ deaths between 1520 and 1550 C.E., around the time many Chincha people died of infections or hunger. The reeds were harvested a bit later, between 1550 and 1590 C.E. Although it’s impossible to know for sure who threaded these vertebrae and why, the researchers report today in Antiquity, the findings support the idea that Chincha people returned to the looted graves of their ancestors and attempted to reconstruct their spines, perhaps in order to physically rebuild a connection with them.
That interpretation sounds very plausible, says Tung, who argues that the sheer number of remains backs the idea that they belonged to the Chincha themselves, and were a community response to the systematic looting of chullpas, almost certainly by the Spanish.
John Verano, an anthropologist at Tulane University, says the finding showcases a fascinating and unique mortuary practice. “This is unusual. Many cultures around the world have postmortem manipulation of bodies in one form or another … but not this kind.”
The study also brings to mind modern cases of families seeking desperately to locate the bodies of their loved ones in mass graves, he says. “Their families are desperate to find their lost children, husbands, fathers, and so on. They’re desperate to give them some type of better burial. … It’s kind of a universal.”