Archaeologists working along the southern coast of Peru have unearthed nearly 200 reed posts adorned with human vertebrae. Sound macabre, but these spines on spikes may have been a response to the Colonial-period looting of graves.
The human vertebrae-on-posts were discovered in the Chincha Valley of Peru and radiocarbon dated to between 1450 and 1650 CE. A total of 192 examples, in which the vertebrae of adults and juveniles were used exclusively, were found across the entire valley, revealing the surprising extent of this practice. This was a tumultuous time for the ancient Chinchorro culture, as it marked the end of Inca rule and the onset of European colonization. Details of this discovery have been published today in Antiquity.
“This discovery is broadening our understanding of how Indigenous peoples use ritual to deal with conquest,” Jacob Bongers, the first author of the paper and an archaeologist at the University of East Anglia, explained in an email. “Our findings suggest that vertebrae-on-posts represent a direct, Indigenous response to European colonialism.” To which he added: “These findings showcase how tombs can become contested during turbulent periods of conquest.”
The Chincha Kingdom existed from 1000 to 1400 CE. They allied themselves with the Inca and were eventually absorbed into their vast empire, but the arrival of European colonists signaled the end. The Chincha population “declined catastrophically” from over 30,000 heads of household in 1533 to just 979 in 1583 due to a combination of epidemics and famines, according to the study. The looting of graves became commonplace, with Spanish colonists removing gold and silver from Chincha burial grounds. The elimination of Indigenous religious practices was also very much on the colonialists’ minds.
The vast majority of the vertebrae-on-posts rested horizontally in elaborate graves called chullpas, of which there are hundreds in the valley. Each post was adorned with the remains of a single individual. The vertebrae were not arranged in anatomical order and only included the remains of adults and juveniles. The vertebrae-on-posts were predominately found in looted tombs with openings that allowed people to re-enter and access the dead. Analysis showed that these spines on spikes “were attempts to ‘reconstruct’ bodies in the face of European looting,” Bongers said.
The team obtained a dozen dates from the items, including the dating of three vertebrae and their associated reeds. The modeling of these dates placed the death of these individuals to between 1520 and 1550 CE and the harvesting of the reeds to between 1550 and 1590 CE. This “suggests no greater than a 40-year difference between these three vertebrae and the three reeds they were strung on,” said Bongers, who added that “our dates support the interpretation that reeds were inserted through the remains of individuals who were recently deposited in tombs.”
This represents a unique treatment of the dead, but as Bongers pointed out, similar practices have been documented elsewhere, such as the ancient Chinchorro culture of South America who threaded wooden sticks into vertebrae to keep mummies rigid, and ancient Egyptians who inserted palm-leaf ribs into the spinal columns of mummies. In the case of the Chincha culture, the practice was a ritualized response to colonialism and the disruption of buried bodies.
“Local groups during the Inca Period valued the integrity or wholeness of dead bodies. We suggest that Chincha peoples shared this belief,” Bongers said. “European looting would have damaged dead bodies and may have ‘corrupted’ the dead. The vertebrae-on-posts may have represented efforts to put the dead back together.”
It’s important to point out that this is one possible explanation. The vertebrate-on-posts could have been “used to transport the remains of the dead to the tombs,” “served as trophies or representations of status, power, or certain individuals,” and possibly even used as rattles, Bongers explained. I asked him if the spines on sticks could’ve been used as a scare tactic, and he said, “that’s a very interesting interpretation.”
Looking ahead to future research, Bongers said he’s interested in doing ancient DNA and isotopic analyses of the remains to learn more about the people who, after they died, had their spines attached to reeds.