Chauchilla Cemetery, Nazca, Peru
The sun is setting by the time I leave the desert near Nazca. The sunsets in this part of Peru dominate the sky and the land – as the early evening approaches, it’s as though a blind of black is being pulled down on an orange window until the last sliver at the horizon is covered. The shadows on the sand grow longer until they are consumed by the dark.
You don’t want to still be out here in the Nazca deserts when the light is gone. You can’t be too sure what the mummies do at night.
At the Chauchilla Cemetery, the dead have survived for hundreds of years. Almost two thousand years, in some cases. People were first buried here in about 200 AD and the burials continued for up to 700 years.
When you visit Chauchilla Cemetery yourself, though, it’s not just a field of graves. Don’t imagine headstones or closed tombs. What you find are the bodies themselves. Skeletons – many still with hair or even some skin – wrapped in clothes, staring at you from the sunken eye sockets that seem more alive than they should for people born a thousand years ago.
The way they are posed, they appear to be sitting patiently in the corner of their sunken pits, their subterranean domains. Some are looking up towards the visitors standing at the edge, others seem to be focused on the earthen pots and other belongings in front of them.
They are all clothed, their bodies hidden beneath material that has turned to rags – but dressed realistically enough that you wonder whether they chose their own outfits. Are the bowls on the ground in front of them their last supper or their next meal?
The preservation is remarkable and it’s due to two main reasons. The first is the way that the bodies were prepared for burial. They were covered in embroidered cotton and then painted with resin before being put into tombs made of mud brick. This kept out insects and slowed bacteria that might have destroyed the bodies faster.
But another factor – an important one, is the dry climate here in the Peruvian desert. Bodies do not decay in the same way they do in most of the world. In these tombs, the flesh lived on. The souls? Well, who knows for sure.
The Chauchilla Cemetery is part of the heritage of the Nazca culture, which was based in this region of Peru from about 100 BC to 800 AD. The most famous legacy of these people are the Nazca Lines, the enormous shapes and patterns that were created in the desert and are best viewed from a plane above. That’s when you can really see the animals and images hundreds of metres wide in the flat land below.
A trip to see the mummies is a worthwhile trip when you’re here, though. Most tourists just come for the day, take a flight to see the lines, and leave. But those pictures in the desert are just an ancient remnant of a long lost culture.
These mummies… well, you could say the same thing. But perhaps there’s a stronger connection, a more spiritual one, something we can’t quite define. Look into their eyes and tell me there’s not still some life in these bodies.