Why Did 16th-Century Andean Villagers String Together the Bones of Their Ancestors?

Researchers suggest the practice was a response to Spanish conquistadors’ desecration of the remains

Vertebrae on Sticks
Roughly 500 years ago, vertebrae were arranged on sticks in Peruvian tombs. C. Oshea / Antiquity Publications Ltd., Bongers et al.

Nearly 200 sticks strung up with human vertebrae have been discovered by archeologists exploring tombs in Peru's Chincha Valley. Dating back to the turbulent period of early colonization about 500 years ago, these reconstructed spines may represent attempts by Indigenous groups to salvage and put back together the remains of their ancestors. The archaeologists, who published their findings in Antiquity today, argue that this practice may have been a response to tomb destruction by Europeans who mounted campaigns to stamp out Andean religious practices in the 16th century.

Thanks to river water that flows from the Andes, the Chincha Valley is a fertile oasis in an otherwise arid environment near the Pacific coast, about 130 miles south of Lima. The Chincha Kingdom flourished in the area from around 1000 to 1400 C.E., and it included a wealthy, organized society with merchants, seafarers, farmers and a well-regarded oracle. In the 15th century, they were subsumed into the Inca Empire, but notably, they maintained some autonomy. The Inca palace at Huaca La Centinela, the major Chincha site in the lower part of the valley, is uncharacteristically small, overshadowed by a much larger Chincha complex. Written sources indicate that a Chincha leader even sat beside Inca emperor Atahualpa when they first encountered the Spanish.

“It seems to be one of the few documented cases of an alliance that was forged between the Inca and a complex polity,” says the lead author of the new study, Jacob Bongers, a senior research associate at Sainsbury Research Unit at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, England.

Bongers was not yet in graduate school when he traveled to the area in 2012 with a field expedition led by archaeologist Charles Stanish of UCLA. One day the group surveyed the less-studied part of the middle valley. There, they found the ruins of hundreds of stone burial chambers known as chullpas which had not been systematically investigated before. Inside some of these tombs, they discovered several reed posts curiously threaded with human vertebrae.

“We weren't really sure what to make of it,” Bongers says. “We initially thought probably some looters came in here and made a joke. Then we kept finding more.”
Vertebrae and Skull On a Stick
Found within a chullpa, this vertebrae-threaded post was inserted into a cranium, the only case of such an arrangement. J.L. Bongers / Antiquity Publications Ltd., Bongers et al.

Over the next few years, the researchers would return to the region to examine the chullpas across the valley. They documented 192 examples of vertebrae on sticks found alongside other bones and occasionally other artifacts like textile bundles. “Just the sheer number of these I think is the most shocking bit,” Bongers says. An analysis of the remains became the basis for his doctorate work at UCLA.

The bones come from adults and children alike, and appear to have been taken from already decomposed remains; the vertebrae don’t show evidence of cut marks and many of them are strung up out of order, according to the study. Bongers says he spoke to farmers in the region about the tombs. They had come across the bones on sticks and assured him these were not the work of recent looters or vandals. The farmers were convinced these specimens were old, though how old was unclear. (It also just seemed unlikely that modern looters would spend so much time and effort to create these items.) Confirmation of the age of these remains came through radiocarbon dating of a few samples.

The dates the researchers obtained from the vertebrae fall in a range between 1520 and 1550 C.E. The reeds, meanwhile, date from about 1550 to 1590, which coincides with the time period the Spanish arrived in Chincha. To Bongers and his colleagues, this timeline points to a tentative explanation: The vertebrae were collected from previously buried, disjointed human remains and put on reeds as a deliberate mortuary practice, developed perhaps in response to European destruction of the tombs.

“When you put the empirical data in the larger cultural context, the interpretation, I think, is quite compelling,” says Tiffiny Tung, an anthropologist at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee, who has studied pre-Hispanic treatment of the dead in the Andes but wasn’t involved in the new Antiquity paper.

Just a few generations after forming their alliance with the Inca, the Chinchas were devastated by the Spanish conquest. Written sources indicate that in 1533, there were 30,000 Chincha heads of household. Within 50 years, that number dropped to 979. They suffered from famine, disease and harsh political and religious suppression, including the ransacking of graves. Written sources even describe some of the destruction. For example, Pedro Cieza de León, a 16th-century conquistador and chronicler, wrote that in the Chincha region specifically “there was an enormous number of graves in this valley in the hills and wastelands” and claimed that many “were opened by the Spaniards, and they removed large sums of gold.” But it was not only a quest for riches that drove this grave-robbing.

“It's not just looting from a few greedy conquistadores,” says Tung. “It was part of a systemic policy to go in and destroy Andean cemeteries and Andean mummies.”

Andean societies had a very tactile relationship with the dead. Creating mummies was part of a tradition that stretched back thousands of years, before even the Egyptians were making mummies on the other side of the world. By the time of the Inca Empire, the mummies of deceased leaders were kept on view in their palaces. The preserved bodies of family members were venerated, given offerings and sometimes taken out of their chullpas to be paraded during festivals. Andean societies at this time were “concerned with the wholeness of the dead body, which may have represented social order and memory,” Bongers and his colleagues wrote in the study.

The Europeans, however, viewed this veneration of the dead as heretical to their Christian practice. In Peru, the Spanish led systematic campaigns to destroy objects of Indigenous worship, a colonial policy that scholars call the Extirpation of Idolatry. “When you view it in that light, it becomes more tenable to imagine them going back into these burial grounds and trying to reconstitute their ancestors,” Tung says.

Bongers says he hopes future research could provide more insights about the genetic history of those buried in these tombs and others who were part of the Chincha Kingdom. As part of a previous study, Bongers and his colleagues analyzed DNA from remains in a Chincha Valley chullpa that contained the bones of more than 100 individuals, and eight examples of sticks with vertebrae. Their results, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 2020, indicated that the dead in this tomb surprisingly originated in the north Peruvian coast. These individuals were perhaps mandated to move south under a known Inca policy of forced resettlement. “We have yet to find the local genetic signature of the Chincha people, but there is more DNA work that is being done right now,” he says. “The story is certainly not closed at this point.”