Scientists discover why Peruvians painted skulls

(ORDO NEWS) — Already a thousand years ago, the Chincha people, who lived on the territory of modern Peru, decorated the remains of their ancestors with red pigment.

With the advent of Europeans, the tradition was not interrupted, and in some places even intensified. The authors of the new study believe they have learned the reason for this.

The results of a study of finds from the Chincha Valley in the south of modern Peru. These skeletal remains, as well as a significant number of items of grave goods, were recovered from more than a hundred chulpas.

Chulpa is a large burial structure of the Chincha people and some of their neighbors. Several people were buried in chulpas at once.

The bones that have become the subject of research can be divided into three parts by dating: the first belongs to the Late Intermediate Period (1000-1400 AD), the second to the Late Horizon (1400-1532 AD) and the colonial period (1532-1825).

In 38 cases the bones (mainly the skulls) were stained with red pigment. Moreover, they refer to all three periods.

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The authors of the work found that the artists used various types of red paint and that only some people’s bones were painted after death.

The use of red pigment in funeral rituals dates back thousands of years in Peru and is associated with lengthy rituals for deceased members of society. “Death was not the end,” the article says.

“It was a turning point of transformation into another kind of existence and a critical transition from one state to another, providing the basis for later life.”

In this sense, it is especially intriguing that even after the arrival of the Spaniards, the Chincha also continued to paint the skulls of their ancestors.

The researchers took samples of red paint from the surface of various artifacts and bones, 25 of which were human skulls.

Using three different methods – X-ray powder diffraction, X-ray fluorescence spectrometry and laser ablation – they determined the composition of the red pigments.

The red paint on 24 samples was derived from some kind of iron ore, possibly hematite, on 13 from mercury-based cinnabar, and on one from a combination of the two.

Further chemical analysis showed that cinnabar was imported hundreds of kilometers away, while hematite was most likely sourced locally.

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Materials and skeletal remains with red pigment

Most of the people whose bones were stained were adult males. But there were exceptions: a few women and children, some of them with healed injuries, and some of them the shape of the skull was changed in infancy.

The researchers also found out how the red paint was applied. “Posthumous artists” used textiles, leaves and their own hands for this: thick vertical or horizontal lines of paint on the skulls indicate that drawing with fingers was not at all shameful.

Moreover, the authors believe that it was finger painting that was of decisive importance for the formation of certain sacred connections between the living and the dead.

The authors write that they have not yet found out exactly when the paint was applied to the bones. It is clear that this happened after the bodies were skeletonized.

But exactly how much time passed between the death of a person and the painting of his skull remains to be seen.

The fact is that some painted bones, especially skulls, were removed and placed over other graves – according to the researchers, to protect the dead.

Combining theories based on Andean notions of death and cosmology with scientific analyzes of painted skeletons, they suggest that transgressions against the dead, such as looting, were meant to correct the living.

“We hypothesize that people were returning to the disturbed chulpas to paint the human remains that had become desecrated after the European invasion,” the paper says.


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