The Peruvian Attitude to Death

There’s no better way to spend New Year’s Day than in the company of thousand-year-old mummies, their well-preserved bodies having survived the greed of looters and centuries of exposure to the elements at the Chauchilla Cemetery. Well, it’s at least a more poignant start to January 1st than I’ve ever enjoyed before, albeit with the familiar thump of a hangover, this time from Peruvian wine, lurking in the background.

Throughout my sixteen days in Peru, I was struck by the resurgence of death as a theme, even away from the obvious attractions such as the cemeteries and pilgrimage sites. I found it time and again on the roadside, on the painfully dated telenovelas screened on daytime TV, and in the religious iconography covering everything from portraits to jewellery. Here I’ve examined some of the best examples of the theme emerging.

Peru Lima San Francisco Cathedral

Below these Lima streets are passages in and around the catacombs.

Bones in the Catacombs

What do the remains of 70,000 people look like? That’s how many Lima locals are said to have been laid to rest in the catacombs of San Francisco Cathedral, though you’d be hard pushed to track down nearly enough of their corpses, as the efficient Peruvians added layers of quicklime between each new arrival, to cut down the amount of precious space used up. Instead, what you do find are many of the larger bones, particularly from the legs and arms, which were more resistant to the effects of the quicklime.

Peru San Francisco Catacombs art_com

The view at the bottom of one of the wells (no personal photography is allowed in the catacombs). Credit:

These were haphazardly stacked by archaeologists into ramshackle piles, deep in the dank belly of the cathedral, and to walk amongst them is not so much a chilling encounter as a feeling of stepping into a dig in progress. It is as though nothing is quite finished here, with little more than a simple wooden barrier to protect you from falling into one of the piles from the walkway above. And yet, as the walkway ends and you reach one of the wells carved even further underground, you finally see a finished piece of work from the archaeologists, though perhaps not an academically approved one: human skulls studding the wells proudly, singled out to stand guard over the catacombs.

Peru Roadside

Roadside tributes to loved ones.

Crosses on the Road

A good portion of my trip was spent on the road, and it was difficult to give into sleep on the relentless bus journeys when there was so much to see out of the windows. I kept noticing crucifixes and shrines of varying sizes dotted along the side of the highway, somehow being spared from the dust and the rubbish littering most of the roadsides. Some of these memorials had names, others were as big as bus stops and contained lavish murals, whilst some were simplistic, almost blending into the scrubland behind.

Peru Roadside 5

Yet another memorial to a lost Peruvian.

“They mark the places where people died on the road,” explained my tour guide. “Victims of traffic accidents which, as you can see from the style of driving over here, can be pretty common.” Indeed, Peru is not a place where the Highway Code seems to be adhered to, with many drivers being unafraid to overtake multiple cars on a blind bend, or worse. Perhaps they don’t even register the memorials as they drive, having become desensitised to them over time, or maybe they just assume it won’t happen to them. Personally, I couldn’t stop looking and thinking about these little reminders. A similar phenomenon around the world is that of the ghost bike, a white bicycle placed to remember a cyclist who died on the street.

Peru Chauchilla Cemetery

This mummy’s long hair shows his or her high status in the community.

Mummified Remains in the Desert

The Chauchilla Cemetery has something of a sketchy history, but what we do know is that it contains mummies interred over a period of around 700 years, best estimated between 200-900AD. Mummies were carefully wrapped and buried alongside important grave goods, such as pottery, though the site was damaged by looters searching for gold, with many bodies being disturbed. Even today you can see where the looters dug their holes and carelessly moved the bodies; now the landscape is pockmarked, with reed shelters helping to shield the best preserved mummies from the desert heat in their mud brick tombs.

Peru Chauchilla Cemetery 2

The pre-Hispanic mummies are well preserved.

Interestingly, most of the mummies retained their long hair, as well as some parts of flesh, which definitely made it harder to look at their faces. A local guide explained that long hair was typical of the culture at the time, with many people choosing to add hair extensions in order to fit the trend (so much for hair extensions being a modern indulgence). The layers of fabric worn by the mummies were another draw, often very high quality and featuring complex designs. It was incredible to think that such advanced communities existed in the middle of the desert a thousand years ago, and that all this evidence could have been lost if the looters had destroyed everything in their path.

Peru Machu Picchu Buildings

Machu Picchu through the mist.

Sacrifices in the Ice

The last deadly reminder was at Machu Picchu, not with the sight of a corpse but with the story from a guide exposing the sacrificial rituals of the Incas. Whilst they produced animal offerings, human sacrifices were made too, and the Incas would take the cleverest and best performing children to be presented to the gods. The chosen victims were plied with alcohol and coca before being knocked out by a blow to the head, then they were buried alive in the ice; their families would see this as a privilege and a blessing rather than a sad occasion.

Peru Machu Picchu Condor

The Temple of the Condor, with its wing-like rocks.

If you want to read more about the practice, the Guardian has a very thorough piece detailing why humans were offered to the gods, and PBS has a good summary of the sacrificial ceremonies. Within Machu Picchu you should make time to see the Royal Tomb, which was an important excavation site for archaeologists and contained plenty of female skeletal remains. Meanwhile the nearby Temple of the Condor held animal remnants, and the stone area representing the condor’s head would have been a prime place for sacrifices to be staged.

If the Peruvian death vibes feel a little too all-consuming, it’s important to remember that this is just one part of the country’s culture, but it was fascinating to see how many times it cropped up during my trip. I always think you can learn a lot about a destination from its attitude to death, and Peru isn’t afraid to confront the morbid side of things.

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