Since 1997, Peruvian law has protected the haunting Chauchilla Cemetery, a Nazca burial ground where mummified corpses were laid to rest until the ninth century. Prior to 1997, it was ravaged mercilessly by Peruvian grave robbers. For many of these ancient corpses, it was the second time they lost their heads.
Scattered among the many full-bodied mummies at Chauchilla Cemetery are a number of mummified heads. Many of the heads have been specially prepared with holes drilled into the backs of their skulls, and in some cases, rope has been threaded through the mummified head. This is possibly so they could be worn as a necklace or as a jaunty charm hanging off of a belt. Though originally believed to be “trophy heads” taken in battles, recent evidence shows that the heads actually came from the same population as the rest of the mummies, suggesting the heads may not have been taken in battle after all. The exact nature and use of the heads remain distinctly unclear.
Despite the fact that the burial grounds have not been utilized since the ninth century, the human remains are astoundingly well-preserved. The Peruvian Desert’s dry climate is, of course, a factor in the preservation, but burial practices also contributed to the condition of many of the corpses, some still hanging on to their hair and skin over 1200 years after their demise.
Clothed in cotton and painted with resin, the deceased were placed in mud-bricked tombs. Wooden posts that were once assigned by archeologists to the category of religious use are now thought to be drying posts for the dead, which would explain the added step needed for such an impressive example of mummification.
Discovered in the 1920s, the remains and artifacts were spread across the area, picked over by nefarious pilferers. The burial ground has been restored to as close to its original state as possible, with the bones, bodies, heads, and artifacts either returned to tombs or showcased in displays.
Know Before You Go
Chauchilla Cemetery is located 28.5 km (17.7 mi) south-east of the city of Nazca. Take the 1S/Pan American Highway south out of Nazca to the Carretera a Chauchilla (a road) and follow it to the end. Tour information can be found on several Peruvian travel websites. If you go wear a HEAVY sunscreen with a high number, at least 50! This place is in the deep desert -- when I visited (March 2016) it was very hot, very windy & very dry & the sun was the most intense I'd ever experienced! It's definitely worth it though, and if you have a good tour guide, they'll tell you incredible stuff about the place!