The road to Chauchilla Cemetery is straddled with fields packed with cactus. The land is arid and dusty. With the car windows rolled up, the heat is as hot as a clay-oven.
Raymond, my guide, explains the cacti we see is mostly used for growing fruit, a sumptuous prickly pear the Peruvians call, Tuna. It is used to make cosmetic products, a major economic commodity for the region.
To our left is Cerro Blanco, a 2080m sand dune piled with white sand. Reputed to be one of the tallest sand dunes in the world, it juts predominantly in the rugged landscape.
Chauchilla cemetery was discovered by grave robbers who looted the area of its textiles, ceramics, gold and expensive minerals for over forty years before the authorities found out and commandeered the land.
“The cemetery was found destroyed by the grave diggers so was not studied thoroughly by archaeologists,” Raymond tells me. That was 70 years ago.
The graveyards of Ica
The area was eventually turned into a tourist attraction and opened in 1996. There are around 60 similar cemeteries in the Ica area, but Chauchilla is the oldest discovered to date. The 250 graves that have been unearthed so far are thought to be just a handful compared to the number experts believe probably exist.
The mummified corpses were unearthed 10km into the Nazca desert. When we arrive there is nobody around. As we shuffle through coarse and gritty sand, a gentle breeze cools us from the baking desert sun.
“The bodies were buried facing east so they see the new day – the sunrise,” Raymond says.
The ancient Nazca peoples only ever lived in the Ica region and despite having a powerful influence on other Andean cultures were passive and did not try to conquer other tribes. We know this because evidence found at Cahuachi Pyramids indicates cultures from all over Peru came here to participate in religious ceremonies.
Part of the evidence comes from the graves in Chauchilla and it was discovered the Nazcans followed Andean traditions by burying their dead with offerings to the Gods and gifts for the deceased to take with them into the next life. Corn, Llamas, parrots and mice, are all very common objects, despite none of these things being local to the area.
Ancient hair in Chauchilla
To bury their dead, the Nazcans removed the eyes and internal organs and replaced them with cotton. Raymond tells me this was to clean out the body. Corpses were then placed in the foetal position and wrapped in cotton and other textiles.
It also seems hair was quite important to the Nazca culture as they would grow it to extraordinary lengths, some as long as two metres, despite the average height of the race only standing a mere 1.5m tall.
One of the more disturbing aspects of Chauchilla is the discovery of babies with decapitated heads. It is believed the babies had been sacrificed and that the head was considered as the most important part of the body because that is where the brain is – the knowledge.
I find this explanation hard to believe as blood rituals were common practice in Andean traditions. Blood would be poured on the earth as an offering to the Gods in return for a good harvest.
Decapitation will give you a greater outpouring of blood than any other form of slicing a body. Is it not a coincidence that beheadings have been used in cultures all around the world for centuries?
Even today, Peruvian miners sacrifice cats or birds as a gift to “Pachamama” and ask that Mother Earth produces more metal and minerals so they can earn more money to feed their families.
Some graves in Chauchilla are empty. It is believed these belonged to the nobility and other high-ranking members of society would have been buried with expensive treasures. But why were the bodies removed? It doesn´t make sense.
After the tour of the Chauchilla cemetery I was taken to a local pottery maker who demonstrated the art of making ceramics. Historically, pottery played a big part in Nazca culture because they made ceramic vessels for the purpose of consuming the sacred drink of Chicha.
To make the ceramics, clay is mixed with sand from the river. The ancient Nazcans did not have machinery so made pottery with their hands and smoothed it over with tools. The moulded clay is then left in the sun for one hour to harden before being polished. It would then be decorated with paint using a brush made from baby’s hair. The colours used for the paint were extracted from stone in the surrounding hills.
Each colour painted on the ceramic was then polished with Opsillan stone, a slow and laborious process that take many hours to dry, sometimes days. The pots were then baked at 100 degrees Celsius for 14 hours with charcoal from the Yuarano tree.
It´s a shame more research has not been undertaken to try and understand the Nazca culture as it seems as though the rituals and life choices they had were a major influence on other Andean cultures and would teach us more about our ancient past. Further research may also answer the questions raised by the mysterious Nazca lines. So why are they being left on the archaeological shelf? Is this another example of the authorities suppressing knowledge?