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Peru’s Unusual Tombs—What They Can Teach Us

Peru’s Unusual Tombs—What They Can Teach Us

Peru’s Unusual Tombs​—What They Can Teach Us


YOU can learn a lot about a people from the way they treat their dead. This truth is particularly evident in Peru, a land where many cultures have left their mark​—among them the Moche, the Chimu, the Nazca, the Chachapoya, the Colla, and the Inca. Each culture had its own set of burial practices, reflecting distinctive beliefs regarding the afterlife.

Scientists as well as grave robbers have excavated thousands of burial places and discovered well-preserved remains wrapped in yards of woven fabric or unwoven cotton. Some of the material has been beautifully worked in varied designs. The hot, dry desert sands that cover most of Peru’s Pacific Coast have yielded thousands of well-preserved mummified bodies.

Tombs of the Mighty

Excavations of Moche tombs have unearthed people of royal heritage who were buried with fabulous wealth and with swords and emblems of royalty. Other people were also buried with them. Evidently, servants were sacrificed to accompany their chieftains into the afterlife. Some even had their feet cut off. Why? One theory is that the intent was to render these attendants unable to flee their posts in the netherworld.

Near Lake Titicaca, at an altitude of 12,500 feet [3,827 m], are imposing burial tombs called chullpas, stone towers that are up to 40 feet [12 m] tall and wider at the top than at the base. These evidently housed the remains of the nobility of the Colla people, who were conquered by the Inca. Some of the tombs bear engravings of serpents, cats, and monkeys. These creatures were worshiped as guardians of the underworld.

At Karajia, near the town of Chachapoyas, there are tombs that stir the imagination. Six-foot-tall [2 m] sarcophagi made of hardened clay, some of them still bearing traces of the original paint from centuries ago, stand on ledges in the face of a cliff. The faces appear to be frowning majestically as they look out over a green valley, lording it over all that meets their unseeing eyes.

Evidence of Tragic Endings

In a suburb of Lima, archaeologists recently uncovered deep graves containing about 2,200 mummies wrapped in bundles. Evidently Inca in origin, the bundles were in excellent condition. One of them was massive, weighing 528 pounds [240 kg] and standing five feet nine inches [1.8 m] high. It was found to contain two bodies​—that of an Inca nobleman wrapped in 300 pounds [140 kg] of raw cotton and, next to the main bundle, the body of a child who may have been related to the adult. One can only wonder about the circumstances that led to those deaths so long ago.

Less mysterious​—but no less tragic—​are the bodies of children who were sacrificed as offerings to the Andes mountain gods. It may be that the parents of such young ones considered it a privilege to send their children off into the “next world,” perhaps as emissaries to the gods. The children were usually buried at or near a mountain peak. The body of one young girl, hidden for centuries, was found on snow-covered Sara Sara in Ayacucho, at an altitude of some 16,000 feet [5,000 m]. Such sacrificed children were wrapped in robes, sometimes with gifts and tokens nearby, such as small gold or silver statuettes of llamas.

Hopes for the Dead​—What Was the Basis?

These past civilizations in Peru are not the only ones with burial rituals based on the belief that there is a mystical afterlife. In various ways even modern cultures express a preoccupation with life after death.

Beliefs about the afterlife vary widely today. For instance, reincarnation, the transmigration of souls, purgatory, hellfire, and the concept of communicating with the dead are widely cherished notions. Such doctrines are all based on a common teaching​—that at death only the body dies, survived by something immortal that lives on. The Bible does not support any of these ideas.​—Ecclesiastes 3:18-20; 9:5, 10; Ezekiel 18:4.

Rather, the Bible teaches that man himself is a soul, a living mortal creature. (Genesis 2:7) However, the Word of God also offers a wonderful hope for the dead. It teaches that there will be “a resurrection of both the righteous and the unrighteous.” (Acts 24:15) The Bible does more than merely assert such a hope. It contains the written, eyewitness accounts of a number of resurrections. (John 11:17-47; 1 Corinthians 15:3-6) How wonderful, then, are the prospects for the millions who have lived and died through the ages!

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Sarcophagi at Karajia (above)

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© Mylene D’Auriol/PromPerú

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Burial towers 40 feet tall, near Lake Titicaca

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© Carlos Sala/PromPerú

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A young girl’s frozen body was found high in the Andes

Archaeologists have uncovered about 2,200 mummies near Lima

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Top left: © Alejandro Balaguer/PromPerú; inset: Ira Block/NGS Image Collection