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Chinchorro Culture

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El Morro, in Arica, Chile, is the location of an important Chinchorro archaeological site.

El Morro, in Arica, Chile, is the location of an important Chinchorro archaeological site.

Shen Hsieh
Definition:

Chinchorro Culture (or Chinchorro Tradition or Complex) is what archaeologists call the archaeological remains of the sedentary fishing people of the arid coastal regions of northern Chile and southern Peru including the Atacama Desert. The Chinchorro are most famous for their detailed mummification practice that lasted for several thousand years, evolving and adapting over the period.

The Chinchorro type site is a cemetery site in Arica, Chile, and it was discovered by Max Uhle in the early 20th century. Uhle's excavations revealed a collection of mummies, among the earliest in the world.

The Chinchorro people subsisted using a combination of fishing, hunting and gathering--the word Chinchorro means roughly 'fishing boat'. They lived along the coast of the Atacama Desert of northern-most Chile from the Lluta valley to the Loa river and into southern Peru. The earliest sites (mostly middens) of the Chinchorro date as early as 7,000 BC at the site of Acha. The first evidence of mummification dates to approximately 5,000 BC, in the Quebrada de Camarones region, making the Chinchorro mummies the oldest in the world.

Chinchorro Chronology

  • 7020-5000 BC, Foundation
  • 5000-4800 BC, Initial
  • 4980-2700 BC, Classic
  • 2700-1900 BC, Transitional
  • 1880-1500 BC, Late
  • 1500-1100 BC Quiani

Chinchorro Lifeways

Chinchorro sites are primarily located on the coast, but there are a handful of inland and highland sites as well. All of them seem to follow a sedentary lifeway reliant on maritime resources.

The predominant Chinchorro lifestyle appears to have been an early coastal sedentism, supported by fish, shellfish and sea mammals, and their sites all contain an extensive and sophisticated fishing tool assemblage. Coastal middens indicate a diet predominated by sea mammal, coastal birds and fish. Stable isotope analysis of the hair and human bones from the mummies indicates that nearly 90 percent of Chinchorro diets came from maritime food sources, 5 percent from terrestrial animals and another 5 percent from terrestrial plants.

Although only a handful of settlement sites have been identified to date, Chinchorro communities were likely small groups of huts housing single nuclear families, with a population size of approximately 30-50 individuals. Large shell middens were found by Junius Bird in the 1940s, adjacent to the huts at the site of Acha in Chile. The Quiana 9 site, dated to 4420 BC, contained the remains of several semicircular huts located on the slope of an Arica coastal hill. The huts there were built of posts with sea mammal skin roofs. Caleta Huelen 42, near the mouth of the Loa River in Chile, had several semisubterranean circular huts with superimposed floors, implying long-term ongoing settlement.

Chinchorro and the Environment

Marquet et al. (2012) completed an analysis of environmental changes of the Atacama coast during the 3,000-year span of the Chinchorro culture mummification process. Their conclusion: that the cultural and technological complexity evidenced in mummy construction and in fishing gear may have been brought about by environmental changes.

They point out that the micro-climates within the Atacama desert fluctuated during the end of the Pleistocene, with several wet phases that resulted in higher ground tables, higher lake levels and plant invasions, alternating with extreme aridity. The latest phase of the Central Andean Pluvial Event occurred between 13,800 and 10,000 years ago, when human settlement began in the Atacama. At 9,500 years ago, the Atacama had an abrupt onset of arid conditions, driving people out of the desert; another wet period between 7,800 and 6,700 brought them back. The effect of ongoing yoyo climates was seen in population increases and decreases throughout the period.

Marquet and colleagues argue that cultural complexity--that is to say, the sophisticated harpoons and other tackle--emerged when the climate was reasonable, populations were high and plentiful fish and seafood were available. The cult of the dead exemplified by the elaborate mummification grew because the arid climate created natural mummies and subsequent wet periods exposed the mummies to the inhabitants at a time when dense populations spurred cultural innovations.

Chinchorro and Arsenic

The Atacama desert where many of the Chinchorro sites are located has elevated levels of copper, arsenic and other toxic metals. Trace amounts of the metals are present in the natural water resources, and have been identified within the hair and teeth of the mummies, and in the current coastal populations (Bryne et al). Percentages of arsenic concentrations within the mummies ranges from <0.8 to ~700 micrograms of arsenic per gram. M/p>

Archaeological Sites: Ilo (Peru), Chinchorro, El Morro 1, Quiani, Camarones, Pisagua Viejo, Bajo Mollo, Patillos, Cobija (all in Chile)

Sources

This glossary entry is a part of the About.com guide to Andean Preceramic Period, and the Dictionary of Archaeology.

See the terrific Spanish language La Cultura Chinchorro by Bernardo Arriaza for more information.

Allison MJ, Focacci G, Arriaza B, Standen VG, Rivera M, and Lowenstein JM. 1984. Chinchorro, momias de preparación complicada: Métodos de momificación. Chungara: Revista de Antropología Chilena 13:155-173.

Arriaza BT. 1994. Tipología de las momias Chinchorro y evolución de las prácticas de momificación. Chungara: Revista de Antropología Chilena 26(1):11-47.

Arriaza BT. 1995. Chinchorro Bioarchaeology: Chronology and Mummy Seriation. Latin American Antiquity 6(1):35-55.

Arriaza BT. 1995. Chinchorro Bioarchaeology: Chronology and Mummy Seriation. Latin American Antiquity 6(1):35-55.

Byrne S, Amarasiriwardena D, Bandak B, Bartkus L, Kane J, Jones J, Yañez J, Arriaza B, and Cornejo L. 2010. Were Chinchorros exposed to arsenic? Arsenic determination in Chinchorro mummies' hair by laser ablation inductively coupled plasma-mass spectrometry (LA-ICP-MS). Microchemical Journal 94(1):28-35.

Marquet PA, Santoro CM, Latorre C, Standen VG, Abades SR, Rivadeneira MM, Arriaza B, and Hochberg ME. 2012. Emergence of social complexity among coastal hunter-gatherers in the Atacama desert of northern Chile. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Early Edition.

Pringle H. 2001. The Mummy Congress: Science, Obsession, and the Everlasting Dead. Hyperion Books, Theia Press, New York.

Standen VG. 2003. Bienes funerarios del cementerio Chinchorro Morro 1: descripción, análisis e interpretación. Chungará (Arica) 35:175-207.

Standen VG. 1997. Temprana Complejidad Funeraria de la Cultura Chinchorro (Norte de Chile). Latin American Antiquity 8(2):134-156.

Standen VG, Allison MJ, and Arriaza B. 1984. Patologías óseas de la población Morro-1, asociada al complejo Chinchorro: Norte de Chile. Chungara: Revista de Antropología Chilena 13:175-185.

Standen VG, and Santoro CM. 2004. Patrón funerario arcaico temprano del sitio Acha-3 y su relación con Chinchorro: Cazadores, pescadores y recolectores de la costa norte de Chile. Latin American Antiquity 15(1):89-109.

Examples:
Villa del Mar (Chile)

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