The Mummies of the Atacama (and an “outtake” from Arauco)

The oldest mummies in the world are not in Egypt but in Chile, in the northern Atacama desert near the present day city of Arica.  The Atacama is so dry and so naturally rich in nitrate, that any corpse buried in it will naturally mummify.  However, the ancient peoples of the Chinchorro culture (roughly, between 5000 and 3000 BC) improved upon nature by artificially mummifying their dead.  Below are some images of the Chinchorro and their mummies, all from the Museo de San Miguel de Azapa, in Arica.

A diorama representing the ancient Chinchorro in their arid habitat:Living Chinchorros

Some “artificial” mummies:
Chinchorro mummies.   A row of “artificial” mummies
mummy row











One such mummy being “assembled”:
Preparing a mummy











Some less artificial mummies:


(A parenthetical factoid: Edvard Munch’s The Scream was influenced by a natural Peruvian mummy in a Paris museum.)               


Chinchorro mummified each other for thousands of years, in several ways, but I leave a more detailed explanation and discussion of this complex subject—fascinating, for me at least—to the following links: a short summary in Wikipedia; a more detailed explanation in National Geographic; and a theory as to why the Chinchorro mummified their dead in Discover Magazine.

Now, the mummies of the Atacama certainly have earned their place in a blog about Chile.  But—you may ask—what do they have to do with Arauco: a Novel?  Well … long as my novel is, it was far, far longer in its first draft.  And one of the many outtakes, concerns the Chinchorro mummies.  Not surprisingly, the passage occurs when Valdivia’s expedition has begun to traverse the Atacama Desert.  I excised it as too unhistorical, too long, too fantastic, and altogether too H. Ryder Haggard.  But I still kind of like it, and maybe those who have read Arauco may find it of interest, so I am resurrecting the “outtake” below.

PS Incidentally, I’m currently planning to retrace Juan’s journey from Cuzco to Santiago this fall (backwards), and I intend to meet some Chinchorro mummies, even though, when all was said and done, the Juan de Cardeña of Arauco did not. _______________________________________________________________________

Atacama “Outtake” from Arauco

Early the next morning, telling no one about this act of voluntary insanity, Juan chose to ride by himself up the arroyo where they were camped, following the gray-green scrub that undulated down its center, evidence of the life giving water that seeped below.  The walls of the dry watercourse were soon high enough to cast a welcome shade, even for a mounted man.  Knowing he could not get lost if he followed this dead stream, Juan let the horse choose both path and pace, having decided to fill his mind with desert until he was as empty as the place itself.  He stared at the fractured rocks, the lead-gray sand, the remorseless blue of the sky, riding until his horse stopped at a well sunk into the arroyo, a deep cavity lined with stone, the work of Incas perhaps.  Juan peered over to see steps descending to black water at the bottom.  And there were converging paths indicating that the well was regularly used.  Alarmed, Juan looked around, saw no one.  Deciding that any Indians that might have been there had vanished at his approach, he dismounted.  A ragged savage cry broke out on the rim of the arroyo when Juan was halfway down the well.  An attack!  He drew his knife and scrabbling up the stone steps, slammed his back into the bulk of Amadis, to protect him from arrows.  He was alone, surrounded!  But the Indian cries were retreating up the arroyo, in the direction of the cordillera.  Still, as the boulders strewn all about could easily hide a hundred warriors in their shadows, he waited.  When the shadows remained shadows Juan swung his leg over his horse, and from his new vantage, a stone’s throw away, he saw a head peering over a rock.  Black hair, wide black eyes, a headband worked with beads.

The Indian broke cover, running.  Then a half dozen dark forms detached themselves from boulders like shadows suddenly grown feet, scampering in ragged file through the garden of jumbled stone.  On an impulse Juan spurred his horse.

The Indians had a good lead and were astonishingly swift.  And the horse was slowed by the meanders of the path, so for some time Juan lost ground, his quarry disappearing around a curve ahead.  Giving them up for lost, he discovered that at the bend the boulders stopped and the riverbed turned to gravel, a surface better than any road in Spain.  Spurring, Juan saw the Indians at a distance, clambering up the canyon wall.  The climb seemed impossible, but they were making progress.

One of the climbers lost his toehold, hung for a heart-wrenching moment by one hand and fell, bouncing down the rough wall, slamming into the river bed.   Amazingly he sprang up and ran, limping though.  Soon Juan was behind him, slowing his horse to a trot, looking down at the back of the tightly braided head.  The Indian was barefooot, slender.  A bow and quiver were slung upon his back.  A rag was about his loins, and he was painted in black stripes, red dots, probably for war.  He seemed a youth about his age, and at the end of his endurance, for he was slowing.

Feeling like a bullfighter about to dispatch his wounded beast, Juan reined in as the Indian rounded another bend, and was just in time to see the youth disappear into the canyon wall.  Arrived at the site of the miracle he saw nothing but the fractured face of the cliff.   There were large crevices, yes, but nothing wide enough for even the slim youth to slip through.  To disappear so suddenly he must have run into a larger opening that to all appearances ended blind.  Juan scrutinized the cleft.  Did it conceal a trap?  But the savage only had bow and arrow, useless in close quarters.  Juan drew his knife, dismounting.  He had risked too much already to turn his back upon insanity, and vaguely, he wanted to apologize.  He shuffled into the narrow opening.  No one there.  As his eyes became accustomed he made out a space between boulder and cliff, wide as his shoulders, black as Hades.

Hearing nothing but his own breathing he slid in sideways, feeling his way with his knife, blade grating on stone from time to time.  The cleft narrowed until he had to shuffle sideways to continue.  Here the fissure was almost as straight, as smooth as an Inca alley, and Juan decided that it had been improved, if not created, by man.  Seeing faint light he stepped into what seemed a half lit cave.  After total darkness even this dimness was blinding and he paused.  A hammer hit his ribs and he staggered back.  The youth, not five paces away, stood in intolerable sunlight with the second arrow nocked, the obsidian arrowhead at once black and bright.   The “No!” swelling to Juan’s throat exploded as a grunt when the arrow slammed into his belly.  The third hit his ribs like a tiny fist of amazing power.

He had been saved by chain mail, but would the Indian learn from his failures and target his legs, his vulnerable throat?     The fourth arrow hit him high on the side with a hollow sound, knocking the air from his lungs.  Juan turned and squatted to protect his legs, his throat, and was hammered in the back twice more.  Then blessedly, nothing.  Juan looked: there was no one at the opening of the cave, if cave it was, and in a fighting crouch he emerged into the brilliance of the Atacama.   His sight was swimming, but he could make out what he interpreted as a large round church with short columns in the shaded edge, and the sky its roof.  At the center, by the altar, was the Indian youth with his arms folded, useless bow hanging from his hand.  Juan looked up, around.  The walls were sheer and higher than an ancient oak was tall.  There was no escape for the Indian.  And suddenly, vertiginously, Juan saw himself through his eyes, a glittering, alien thing.

He had led Juan into a place where he could not take his horse.  He had shot all his arrows into the foreign terror at close range, accurately, and sorcery had made them fall to the ground as if he had shot the canyon wall.  Now he was trapped himself, waiting for a death he did not expect to recognize.

Juan sheathed his knife.  At close range the Indian seemed little more than a child.  Juan turned his eyes to the temple, focusing on the closest pillar, and the sight knocked him back like a blow.  A man, erect and motionless!  He had completely misread the scene.  He drew, spinning like a compass gone amok, his knife the needle.  Every pillar was a man!  He leapt at the one nearest the exit, extending his body into a projectile heavy behind his blade.  The shock of contact twisted his wrist.  Juan janked, but his knife was stuck in the Indian, who did not move, white eyes wide with black slits for pupils, like the eyes of a cat turned sideways.  Beneath that horror, the mouth was a huge silent laugh.

Throwing himself back, rolling, Juan came up kneeling without his knife.   The Indian was slowly bowing.  Broken in half, he sank forward … and his hair fell off.

Juan scanned the church.  Every column was an Indian, arms stiff at his sides, flesh like eroded stone, eyes motionless in masklike faces.  Not one of them was breathing.  Mummies!  With a shiver of dread Juan knew he was safe, and worked his blade out from between mummy ribs.  He walked slowly to the Indian youth, empty hands extended in what he intended as a friendly gesture, saying, “No tengas miedo.  Soy amigo.”

How to convince the savage that he meant no harm?  Juan rummaged through his pouch, finding charqui.  He took a piece and gnawed, rubbing his stomach, extending a piece to the Indian, who made a pushing gesture, as if to shove the shrunken stuff away.  “Charqui,” he scoffed correctly, reaching into his own pouch for seeds which he offered in turn, grunting an Indian word.

Juan chewed and it was strange, oily, good … recalling sesame.  They ate and soon were trying to learn each other’s names.  J was impossible for the Indian, and after a half dozen failures he settled on An, shrugging, grinning.

Juan was impressed by this display of linguistic ability, for he could not get the half of the youth’s name, which was long as a paragraph.  Sticking a finger between his lips and flopping them, he produced “Abubabubabubabubabu,” rolling his eyes, an idiot.

A cackle broke from the Indian like a bubble, then he was laughing, pointing at himself, flipping his lips.  “Abuabu.”

Names settled, emboldened, Abuabu reached over to where his arrows had bounced, touching the chain mail with astonished fingertips.  Gesturing ‘wait til you see this’ Juan lifted armor and shirt to show him the livid bruises, one directly over his heart.

Wondering about the mummies, Juan went to examine.  The soft rock of the ampitheater had been excavated, so that every mummy had its niche, as in the portals of cathedrals.  Intrigued, Juan did the round.  Naked, the mummies were equal in the trance of death, their flesh like wrinkled gloves on bone.  A few children were to be told by size.  And the women could only be distinguished by their longer hair, for Juan could not make out a breast.  He did not scrutinize the mummied crotches.

Fleshed out with clay, the faces gripped his attention and would not let go, these masks of extraordinary force.  From where their power, he wondered.  Because so real, portraits built on actual bone, statues alive from within?  Because so still in that last peace, never closing their blind eyes, so uncaring of his care?

Black or red, flaked, the pigments of the masks had dimmed.  They had all been scalped (apparently), the hair removed and replaced as macabre wigs.  And staring from the crude, smooth faces fashioned from clay were eyes of shell.  With shock, Juan recognized the green eyes of Inés in stone, and hurried on, something nagging at his mind.  The Indians made statues of their dead as living, standing open eyed, nothing like the horizontal lords on coffin lids in Spanish churches, eyes closed in eternal rest.  The mummies were not depicted dead, waiting for the trump.  They were not out of sight, these statues of themselves.  They were not even, somehow, dead.  Why would the living create dead that looked back, Juan asked himself, a chill of horror crawling his spine.  He shook it off, noticing that the shadows had grown long and Abuabu was nowhere to be seen.

He hurried to the cleft, which this time seemed shorter, more artificial, and emerged into bare canyon, Amadis standing there with hanging head, probably asleep.  Even his tail was still.  While Cuzco was a cornucopia of what one did not recognize, in the Atacama there were not even flies, Juan thought.  How easily absences could happen without your even knowing.  Why had he not missed flies before today?  The Atacama was dead, but more important, death was like the Atacama.  He mounted Amadis, on the verge of a revelation inspired by mummies.  Maybe difference always surprised you, like death, like Cacafuego.

Suddenly a horde of warriors materialized, circling, arrows nocked but bows not drawn.  Abuabu stepped forward unarmed, hand elevated in the sign of peace, and spoke.

Juan recognized only his own name, An.  Abuabu gestured to a man who stepped forward, older but otherwise like every other Indian there: short, black, black haired, with braids, bangs, a scrap over his manhood, a pouch at his waist and face paint, ocher, with white smeared on the bridge of his nose.  He was unarmed, like Abuabu, and wore a headband like the mummies.

Having been introduced, Juan extemporized, “Encantado, senor Don Indio Importante,” commenting upon the pleasures of the meeting.  The Indian replied in halting Quechua, creating a contest as to who would be least understood.

Juan grinned and dismounted to the sound of muffled Indian speech the hesitant circle apprehensive of the horse.  Insanely, Juan was tempted to relieve tension with lightness, lift the horse’s tail and sniff his ass.  He had seen universal humor at work before, but was not made of Cacafuego’s stuff.  He sat down cross-legged instead, as he was bid by gesture, Quechua and example, with a small circle of Indians.

Juan could no more pronounce the name of the chief than Abuabu’s, and since humor was out of the question, he called him what he was, El Jefe, which he explained meant a big, big man in his own language.  Accepting his honorific with pleased dignity, the chief thanked Juan for sparing Abuabu.  Then in a long speech he asked, scratching pictures on a flat rock, how Juan could separate from his horse.  By way of explanation Juan went to Amadis, mounting and dismounting.  There were awestruck gasps and exclamations, a single smothered cheer.  Juan warmed to the drama, leaping on, leaping off, until the Indians were roaring.  Encouraged, he went to Abuabu and offered to hoist him up on horseback.  Abuabu froze, like a hare eye to eye with a fox, but every other Indian broke into a clamor of encouragement, clacking arrows against their bows.

Juan lifted Ababu’s foot, and before the youth realized what was happening, heaved him up.  He landed crosswise in the saddle, like a grain sack on a mule, and stayed there.  Leaving well enough alone Juan paraded him to the sound of Indian wonder and merriment, until the celebration was interrupted by the arrival of food, something very much like chicha, and wood, miraculously acquired in mid desert.  Juan helped proud Abuabu down.  Today he had become a living legend among his people.

They ate and drank, a fire was built.  Juan explained that he had come from Peru, land of the Incas.  That they seemed to understand.  But nothing else made sense to them: his white skin, ships, Spain, chain mail, the cross around his neck, Holy Mother the Church, the Pope, the horse, the metal of his knife, God in His Trinity, Valdivia, the Holy Roman Emperor.  Only when Juan pointed south and explained that he was going there did the Indians finally respond, making it clear there was nothing south.  They were emphatic.  They spat with disgust, they staggered and fell and pretended to die with their tongues hanging out.  They pointed back to Peru.

Then they responded to his questions.  Their village was up the canyon, and when they saw the monster with two heads, they ran there.  Abuabu returned with the extraordinary news that part of the monster was human in many ways, and friendly, that could talk and eat, that they had shared food.  He had even heard him burp.  The village council had decided to meet this marvel.

Juan asked where they got their wood.  They pointed east and shrugged.  That settled, nothing much else about them seemed particularly interesting to Juan.  They were nearly as naked as the desert.  He asked about the mummies, pointing to the cleft, standing with his his legs together arms at his sides, eyes wide.

El Jefe rolled his own, as if in Spain you had asked a simple village priest, who could not read, to explain the presence of God Almighty in the host.  Some things were at once so evident and so impenetrably mysterious as to be uninteresting, however holy, however much a central part of life.  Juan pressed for answers.  El Jefe spoke to an Indian in the inner circle who was like the others but older, gray haired, with no weapon.  His face was painted black save for white rings around his eyes, which gave him a look of perpetual wonder, like an owl.

He explained.  Juan gathered that the mummies were the dead of their ancestors, and the place where they were had been made by them.  No one made mummies like that any more.

Juan asked how they made mummies now, and learned that when the dead were buried in the sand they just turned dry.  Everybody knew that, he was told somewhat impolitely.  The white stranger was proving to be dim in wit.

Juan asked how the first men had made mummies.

Abuabu was chosen for the demonstration, lying down on the ground as the Indian explained the ancient ways.  First the chest was cut open and the entrails removed.  (Abuabu made a face).  The brain was removed through the nose with long wooden scoops and spoons.  (Abuabu’s eyes grew wide).  Then using the beak of a pelican (the drawing of the bird was unmistakable), the hair was removed.

Juan had a thousand questions but was embarrassed to ask: what about the women’s breasts, the brains and intestines, all the extra organs?  What about the eyes, the testicles?  It seemed to him that some of the most important human parts were discarded.  Were they discarded?

Stolid, the old Indian walked rote’s narrow path….  Next, you filled the cavities with hot coals and ashes.  (Abuabu was beyond reaction).  Then you removed the coals and ashes and put in feathers and rags.  The chest was tied tight with a rope, the arms cut off at the elbow, legs severed at the knees, and the joints scraped flat and reassembled with thongs to make the limbs straight and immovable.  Finally a stick was driven up the ass along the spine, and the backbone lashed to it.  Abuabu wiggled as if tickled, and the Indians roared.

Then rods were driven from each ankle to the skull.  The mummy could then stand up.  (Abuabu demonstrated).  Cheers.

The old Indian worked on the face with clay, replaced the eyes with seashells.  Abuabu squinted, upright, unseeing, turned into an unmoving pillar, a silent oracle, a statue made of meat….

Under a borrowed Indian blanket, Juan slept restlessly that night.  The next morning El Jefe and Abuabu tried to convince him to go to their village, to feast.  Juan refused.  He was missed, he knew.  And Amadis needed forage.

Returning the invitation Juan found no one willing to come with him.  El Jefe explained that Almagro and his men had not passed through their village.  But he came close enough and left a reputation.  The white men had taken all the food they could find, including the seed for next year’s planting, as well as many men and women.

He was interrupted by a cry echoing from the canyon rim, and in an instant a rumble became audible, growing louder, roaring up the defile.  Horsemen.  They had, Juan judged, reached the first bend and spurred their horses to a gallop, just as he had.  In moments they would arrive.

El Jefe and his people vanishing soundlessly into the cleft, but Abuabu hung back, babbling, eyes wide with the terror of yesterday.  Confined by canyon walls, the hammering roll of iron on stone grew into an apocalyptic roar as Abuabu backed slowly into darkness, pleading.  And although Juan did not know his language he knew what he was asking.

The dogs appeared, running free and silent, two greyhounds and two mastiffs in full armor: collars with razor sharp knives, a metal plate on the forehead, mail about the neck, steel on the chest of the mastiffs, chain on the greyhounds.  They were the beasts of the Apocalypse.  And behind them came the horsemen.

Juan was seeing with the eyes of Indians, and when the dogs neared he drew in reflex, that familiar act returning him to himself, if not to Spain, and he was thinking clearly, coldly.  The dogs would find the cleft, and he had sworn (albeit silently) to Abuabu, that he would not let the white demons harm his people.  But how to hold back the Spanish once they knew that there was gold and silver, however little, to be had by killing?

Mendoza’s whistle brought the dogs to a halt.  They sat, straining at an invisible leash.  The horsemen rumbled up, Mendoza pale under his hat, Valdivia stern, Marmolejo ready for holy war.  Pedro scrutinized the child of his heart for damage.  Inés, slipped from her horse, crying out, then crying on his shoulder.  Juan fought back tears himself.  Then she was standing back, holding hands, saying they had been so worried.  She scolded him for leaving without a word.

But Juan was looking at the dogs, who were staring at the cleft.

Mendoza said, “There are savages in there,”  indicating the narrow opening with a gesture.

The Lieutenant Governor looked around, saying he saw no Indians.  Mendoza shrugged.  Savages trained all their lives to become difficult to see, but their genius in vanishing was as nothing to the genius of his dogs in finding them.

Juan ran to the cleft, blocking the entrance with his body, knife drawn, crouching.  The Governor stared, unbelieving.

Inés shrieked “No!” drawing her knife at a dead run, black skirts billowing with speed.  Pedro, too encumbered with armor to do well on his feet, swung up onto his horse.

Valdivia turned to Mendoza and said, low, cold, furious, “Stop this now. Ahora mismo, te lo digo!”

The whistle came too late.  The greyhound bitch had already leapt for the arm that held the knife, the male for Juan’s throat.  Slower in reflex, the mastiffs stopped in their tracks.

Juan knew the dogs were trained into predictability, and at the last moment he switched knife hands and spun.  This tactic, which worked with Incas, failed with the inhuman speed of the dogs.  The bitch missed, corkscrewing in the air, clashing into the canyon wall.  But the male struck Juan’s shoulder with his armored weight, knocking him over.  Instantly on their feet, the dogs pressed their attack, an army of feet and fangs and blades.  No instruction had prepared Juan for this.

Inés shifted from foot to foot, unable to find a target in the twisting, snarling blur.  The whistle came again, but the dogs were deep in blood lust.  Juan stabbed blindly backhand into the maelstrom of flesh and metal grinding him into the ground.  The knife was twisted from his hand.  A yelp.  Another whistle.  Then quickly as it began it ended.  The feet, the fangs, the collar knives were gone, the male greyhound trotting proudly toward Mendoza while the bitch tried to follow, dragging herself with her front paws.  Juan’s knife was lodged in her backbone, and she was vainly scrabbling.

Ignoring her, Mendoza went to the male and removed his armor.  Another invisible signal turned the dog immobile, a panting statue.  Mendoza drew his sword and beheaded him in one clean sweep, then removed the bloody armor of the bitch.  Without a word, methodically, he began to load all the metal in his saddlebags, the focus of frozen astonishment.

Inés and Pedro found that much of the blood covering Juan was from the bitch.  He brushed his friends away almost rudely, though, apprehensive, feeling faint.  The world was blurry and at its center was Valdivia, stern, magisterial, twirling his waxed beard into a finer point as he searched the face of his secretary for the cause of this inexplicable behavior.  His irresponsibility had caused the death of two invaluable dogs, perhaps worth more to the expedition than Juan himself.  His tone said it all, “Eh?”

Juan replied, “I’m sorry, Don Pedro.  I just rode until it was too late to return.”

The Lieutenant Governor was outraged at the patent lie.  “What secret is in that hole, worth fighting against four war dogs?  Eh?  Your virginity?”  Valdivia would have said worse, but Inés was listening.

Juan’s ears were burning under his Inca helmet.  He stammered, “I, I made a friend.  I mean an Indian friend.  Just a boy.”  Juan demonstrated the insignificant height of his new acquaintance with his hand.  “He’s in there.”

“Does the village of this midget have food?”

Sweet Jesus help him!  Valdivia’s eyes could pierce trough every lie.  Food was bad enough.  But gold!

“He is very afraid, ” Juan pleaded.

“What?” yelped Valivia.  “The midget is frightened!”

“Yes, but no food.  Not really.  Just some seeds we ate.  Yes, ate them all.”

Valdivia was speechless, mustaches quivering with anger, but before Juan lied again, and worse, Heaven interceded in the human and yet angelic form of Inés de Suarez.

“Valdivia, for the love of God, this is not a dungeon of the Inquisition.  Here you are, yelling at the wounded child, interrogating him like a Jew who has been dining on Christian children, when all he did is try to protect his little Indian friend.  Look, he’s shaking like a leaf … even more than your mustache.  And he’s literally dripping with blood.  For shame.  He needs to be cleaned and bandaged, not hectored.”

And that was that.  Valdivia gave his beard a yank, bending it out of true, and stalked to his horse muttering, as the ministering angel retrieved materials from her saddlebags to heal the so-called child.  Coldly, he asked Mendoza why he had killed a valuable dog.

No less cold, no less angry, Mendoza replied, “I do not tolerate disobedience.”