Marcajirca is a prehispanic site with a long occupation which lasted between 1040 – 1640 A.D. and with very significant funerary traditions. It is located around 600 km northeast of Lima, Peru’s capital in the state of Ancash. The site is being explored since 2007 as a part of bio-archaeological field school.
On-going excavations indicate that mortuary rites were traditionally implemented according to local rituals. Mummified bodies tied with ropes in fetal position and wrapped in blankets (bundles) were placed in either caves or burial houses (chullpas).
In accordance with historic documents or chronicles from XVI century, when the Extirpation of Idolatries was imposed, all the Indian population had to adopt Christian customs for burying their dead, that meant burying only in cemetery areas assigned by the conquerors and with Christian symbols. These customs were in contradiction with the millenarian tradition of old Peruvians who used to bury their dead in caves or tombs where they could visit the dead afterwards in order to perform rituals and offerings for them. Old custom burials took place in archaeological places. Thus, in the beginning of the colonial times, the new tradition forced old Peruvians to bury their dead not in caves or tombs but rather underground making it more difficult for the Spanish officials to discover the burials.
Recent discovery of two large burial pits shed light on potential transitional practices.
Initial assessment by local archaeologists concluded that these pits were ossuaries. However 14C dating of the bones placed both pits in the timing around the arrival of Christians (1480- 1640 AD). In addition, contextual analysis following bio-archaeological excavation procedures revealed that the bones were in fact individual mummies sequentially buried in the earth.
The pits are so far interpreted as local adaptation (hidden?) to Christian inhumation rites. Despite local ancestral prohibition of body inhumation, local “priests” managed to adapt their rituals in order to satisfy Christian standards of burial and retain the tradition of custom body treatment.
Despite regular looting of the mummies and disruptions of the site by local farmers, careful excavations by field anthropologists and contextual approach of the burials is strongly warranted to guarantee proper interpretation of the burial practices.
Paleo-Pathology Association Meeting 2011