It’s not every day you’re privileged to look into the tombs of a 2000-year-old culture. Almost wholly preserved by both the arid desert and one of humankind’s first successful attempts at mummification, and a mere 30km south of the modern town of Nazca, lies the necropolis of Chauchilla – evidence that there is far more than just the Nazca Lines to occupy your time while you’re here.
Even after a few days to contemplate what we’d seen in the middle of the desert, it was almost impossible to fully grasp the significance of Chauchilla. A huge, ancient burial site that, despite extensive looting and a shocking degree of indifference from the government, is testament to a civilisation that we know precious little about.
The bodies that are on display at the site are remarkably well-preserved. In part this is down to the climate, but the Nazca also developed mummification techniques that have proved highly successful. You can still see well-preserved hair and skin, as well as cotton which was stuffed into the skull. A resin was also applied to the bodies that archeologists believe helped deter insects.
The tombs typically have a maximum of three occupants, the one above has an adult and two children. Sometimes children were sacrificed, beheaded and buried with a pumpkin as a head. Little is known about this gruesome ritual, and the child above has its own skull. Clay pots are common in the graves, filled with maize beer (chicha) and various foods.
The archeological importance of the site is mind-boggling, yet it is open to the elements and unprotected by any form of security except for the woman in the ticket office – and she goes home at 6pm. If the Chauchilla necropolis had been found in Europe it would receive millions of visitors every year and every sort of environmental and security protection available.
As you walk through the site its possible to see where graves have been looted (by the indentations in the earth), and almost everywhere you look there are human bones and broken shards of pottery scattered across the surface of the desert. There was a large sand storm sweeping in on high winds when we were there. When I got back to the hotel I could literally scrape sand off my skin and scalp; what it does to the burial site can only be guessed at.
Sadly we didn’t have time to go to any of the other ancient Nazca sites in the desert, including the religious and ceremonial site of Cahuachi which has several large pyramids that have been painstakenly unearthed and restored. Next time, next time!