Archeologists have discovered an ancient ceremonial site called Tenahaha in Peru’s remote Cotahuasi Valley that contains an estimated several thousand mummies dating back to about 1000 BC. Dozens of tombs filled with as many as 40 mummies each dot the surrounding small hills, according to a report byLive Science.
“The dead, likely numbering in the low thousands, towered over the living,” writes archeologist and author Justin Jennings, a curator at Toronto’s Royal Ontario Museum, in a chapter of his recently published book ‘Tenahaha and the Wari State: A View of the Middle Horizon from the Cotahuasi Valley’ (University of Alabama Press, 2015.)
The dead, who likely lived in nearby villages and ranged in age from fetuses to elderly adults, were buried with their knees pulled up against their chests, wrapped in layers of cloth, and bound with rope, researchers say. Infants were buried in jars.
Sadly, water damage and destruction by rodents have left the mummies in pretty bad shape. Also, in some cases, it appears the mummies’ bones were intentionally scattered and moved about between the tombs. One tomb contains nearly 400 separate human body parts, including feet, hands, and teeth.
Jennings suggests that the action of breaking apart and moving mummy parts may have promoted a sense of community.
“In the Andes, death is a process,” said Jennings in an interview with Live Science, “it’s not as if you bury someone and you’re done.”
Tenahaha was being used between about 800 A.D. and 1000 A.D, according to radiocarbon dating. The site has storerooms, outside arenas for feasts, and shows little evidence that violence played much of a role in these ancient people’s lives, even though coastal Peruvian sites reveal a society that was in the midst of great social upheaval during this time period. Pottery shards found at Tenahaha are painted with what look like ‘smiley faces,’ archeologists say.
“It’s a period of great change and one of the ways which humans around the world deal with that is through violence,” Jennings said in the interview. “What we are suggesting is that Tenahaha was placed in part to deal with those changes, to find a way outside violence, to deal with periods of radical culture change.”
To date, archeologists have excavated seven tombs and 171 mummies from the Tenhaha site, according to Live Science.