Chinchorro culture

The Chinchorro culture of South America was a preceramic culture that lasted from 9,000 to 3,500 years BP (7,000 to 1,500 BC). The people forming the Chinchorro culture were sedentary fishermen inhabiting the Pacific coastal region of current northern Chile and southern Peru. Presence of fresh water in the arid region on the coast facilitated human settlement in this area. The Chinchorro were famous for their detailed mummification and funerary practices. The area of the Chinchorro culture started to receive influences from the Andean Plateau around 4,000 BP, which led to the adoption of agriculture. Much later, it came under the influence of the Tiwanaku Empire.


The Chinchorro culture is named after Chinchorro Beach (Spanish: Playa Chinchorro), near Arica, Chile, where the first mummies were discovered.[1]


The culture was spread across the arid coastal regions of the Atacama Desert from Ilo, southern Peru, to Antofagasta in northern Chile. But the cultural core of the Chinchorro seems to be the Chilean Arica-Camarones region, which stretches between the coastal towns of Arica and Caleta Camarones to the south. There are many archaeological sites around Arica, and around Caleta Camarones.


Chinchorro funeral rites
Artistic representation
The funeral rite is shown as a human skull with funeral helmet and various items, collection of the Anker Nielsen museum in Iquique, Chile. The mummification practice is displayed in the Archaeology Museum of San Miguel de Azapa

The Chinchorro were expert fishermen. They developed an extensive and sophisticated fishing tool assemblage. The people had efficient fishing gear, such as fishing hooks made of shells and cactuses, and stone weights for nets made of mesh fabrics. They became skilled weavers of baskets and mats.[2]

While most Chinchorro sites are located on the coast, some are also found inland and in the nearby highlands. Their lifestyle was predominantly supported by fish, shellfish and sea mammals. There are some large coastal middens that have been excavated. Analysis of the hair and human bones from the mummies indicates that about 90 percent of their diet existed of maritime food sources, with the remaining 10 percent of their food from terrestrial animals and plants.[3]

The Chinchorro type site is located in Arica, Chile; it was discovered by German archaeologist Max Uhle in the early 20th century.[1]

Many very early archaeological sites have been discovered along this coast. In Peru, Quebrada Tacahuay and Quebrada Jaguay have been studied by archaeologists. Further south, there are also the Ring site, and the Quebrada Los Burros. These mostly date to late Pleistocene and early Holocene epochs (ca. 11,000–9000 BC). Inland in Chile, there are also the sites of Achas, and Las Conchas, Chile.[4]

Quebrada Jaguay is the northernmost of these sites, and also the oldest, dated to 11,000 BC. Quebrada Tacahuay, further south, is somewhat younger. Some scholars argue that Chinchorro culture developed from these earlier settlements, although the details are still being investigated. The site of Achas is where the earliest Chinchorro mummy (the Acha man) has been found.

The well known site of Monte Verde, which is also near the Chilean coastline, must also be mentioned in this context. Recently, Monte Verde has been re-dated to as early as 18,500 BP (16,500 B.C.).[5]

Chinchorro mummies

The Chinchorro mummies go back to 9,000 years Before Present, or 7,000 BC. The Chinchorro mummies were much older than those of the ancient Egyptians. Some of their DNA was recovered. The culture lasted for several thousand years, evolving and adapting over the period. The end of the Chinchorro culture is set around 3500 BP.[1]

Dr. Bernardo Arriaza is a Chilean physical anthropologist who contributed much to our current knowledge about the Chinchorro. In 1984, he published a study in the journal Chungara, his first work on the Chinchorro culture. Later, in 1994, Arriaza published a classification of the Chinchorro mummies, the typology that today is widely used by the scientific and general community.[6] In 1995 he wrote an important article[7] for National Geographic Magazine on the Chinchorro mummies, which was translated into several languages helping to promote the ancient mummies at international level. His book "Beyond Death: The Chinchorro Mummies of Ancient Chile[8]" was published by the Smithsonian Institution Press in Washington, D.C. This work was later translated into Spanish by Marlene Onate (University of Nevada, Las Vegas) and published in Chile by the Universidad de Chile together with the Editorial Universitaria Press.

Early tattoo

A Chinchorro male mummy bears the earliest tattoo found in the Americas. He has a mustache-like dotted line tattooed above his upper lip; the tattoo dates to c. 2300 BC.[9][10]

Later developments

The Azapa Phase of local cultural development (4,000‐2,500 BP) was a transitional period between the end of the Chinchorro Phase and the start of the Alto Ramírez Phase. These developments took place in the Azapa Valley near the coast. Around 4,000 BP, the people of the Azapa Valley saw some cultural changes brought by immigrants from the Altiplano. These influences led to the adoption of agriculture c. 3,000 BP, as well as the introduction of ceramics. These later groups no longer mummified their dead.[11]

The influence of the early Andean cultures in northern Chile has been studied by several archaeologists. Especially the influence from the Wankarani culture, and the early Pukara culture from the Lake Titicaca area may be relevant here. During a transitional phase, the Chinchorros may have coexisted with an emergent Andean Tradition along the coast.[12]

See also


  1. Bernardo Arriaza, Chile’s Chinchorro Mummies 1995
  2. "Making the Dead Beautiful: Mummies as Art" Archaeology Magazine
  3. K. Kris Hirst, Chinchorro Culture – Introduction –
  4. Arriaza, Bernardo T.; Standen, Vivien G.; Cassman, Vicki; Santoro, Calogero M. (2008). "Chinchorro Culture: Pioneers of the Coast of the Atacama Desert": 45–58. doi:10.1007/978-0-387-74907-5_3. Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  5. Dillehay, Tom D.; Ocampo, Carlos (November 18, 2015). "New Archaeological Evidence for an Early Human Presence at Monte Verde, Chile". PLOS ONE. 10: e0141923. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0141923. PMC 4651426.
  6. "Tipología de las Momias Chinchorro y evolución de las prácticas de momificación" (PDF).
  7. "Chile's Chinchorro Mummies – Pictures, More From National Geographic Magazine". Retrieved 2016-07-23.
  8. Smith, Maria O. (1996-12-01). "Beyond Death: The Chinchorro Mummies of Ancient Chile. Bernardo T. Arriaza". The Quarterly Review of Biology. 71 (4): 557. doi:10.1086/419559. ISSN 0033-5770.
  9. Arriaza, Bernardo (1988). "Modelo bioarqueológico para la búsqueda y acercamiento al individuo social" (PDF). Chungara. 21: 9–32.
  10. Deter-Wolf, Aaron; Robitaille, Benoît; Krutak, Lars; Galliot, Sébastien (February 2016). "The World's Oldest Tattoos". Journal of Archaeological Science:Reports. 5: 19–24. doi:10.1016/j.jasrep.2015.11.007.
  11. Bianca Petruzzelli (2012), Stable Carbon and Nitrogen Isotopic Analysis of Skeletal Remains from Azapa 71 and Pica-8, Northern Chile: An Assessment of Human Diet and Landscape Use in the Late Holocene. M.A. Thesis,
  12. Carlos A. Baied, Review of: Historias del Desierto: Arqueología del Norte de Chile, by Mario Rivera, Editorial del Norte, 2002, pp. 238, La Serena. Volumen 39, N° 1, 2007. Páginas 135–136 Chungara, Revista de Antropología Chilena

Bibliography and further reading

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