Against the parched Andean earth, flecks of brilliant white. Drawing closer, there are hundreds–thousands– of what look from afar like smooth,white pebbles here.
Woven among them, scraps of cotton bleached by decades of blinding sun, and piles of what appear to be broken sticks. But this sun-whitened debris is not at all what it seems; across this vast plain the remains of and unknown number of humans lie scattered in the open.
The wide landscapes continues unbroken as far as the eye can see, save for a couple of small palm huts. Those rickety structures are all that marks one of the largest graveyards in Latin America; Chauchilla Cemetery in Peru’s Nazca region.
Though the famous and mysterious Nazca lines get top billing here, the surreal quiet of the graveyard and its neglected condition is perhaps equally unforgettable.
For years the extinct Nazca people came to this pebbled plain to bury their dead, knowing they would be watched over and protected by the Andes mountains squatting in the distance. But even as the Nazca laid their family members here, grave robbers were never far behind them. The carefully wrapped bodies , lovingly appointed, were soon dug up; their bones and wrappings, even the odd tuft of human hair, left to scatter in the dry desert wind.
Underneath the palm huts, several graves have been properly excavated, and the mummies within exposed. They are bleached bundles that sit upright with skulls propped atop and jaws agape, stretched wide by decades of exposure and decay.
In many cases, dehydrated, leathery flesh is still visible, and lengths of hair coil to the floor. These mummies are remarkably preserved, still bound in their funerary wraps and looped in rope to hold them fast. All still clutch their knees in the traditional fetal burial position. This is the only archaeological site in Peru where mummies are displayed in their original graves.
Laid out alongside the bodies are stacks of human bones, most still unbroken, and the pile is topped with a collection of skulls. These tidy if gruesome piles are the exception, not the rule, for just outside this hut, something gets stuck in my sandal, and as I try to flick it free with one finger, I realize it is in fact a piece of human bone.
There are bone shards everywhere here. Just bending down, dozens are visible; raising my eyes, the trail leads all the way to the horizon.
Our tour guide tells us there are still many complete mummies under our feet. She twists her hair into a ponytail and, like a human divining rod, spreads her arms wide and begins walking towards some place only she seems to see.
Stopping a few meters from one of the huts, she crouches and begins sweeping sand from what would seem to be a random spot. Within seconds she has revealed the smooth surface of a kneecap, then a leg.
Shifting, she grinds away the grit of the sand to expose another skull, its eyes now wide to the bright afternoon sun. There is still clearly so much history here. But our guide, as if recovering memory of some taboo, hastily covers the bones again; these graves, she says, are not meant to be disturbed further.
Grave robbers cared nothing for the people whose eternal rest they were obviously ending. The bodies here have been yanked unceremoniously from the ground, stripped of valuables, clothing, jewels, and left to scatter with the help of birds, small animals, and the dry desert wind.
The land now bears these scars–pockmarks and potholes dot the landscape where sand has filled in the space left vacant by the removal of a mummy. The desecration so common, that hundreds of years ago, people stopped trying to undo the damage, and left the bones to their fate.
Bodies that were somehow missed by looters are amazingly well preserved and became naturally mummified by the dry desert climate. Those are the bundles that now sit propped at the bottom of these tombs.
This site was left to the whim of the winds and sporadic visitors until the late 90’s, when Peru’s government finally took over the site to begin preserving it. And though the thousands of bone shards and shredded scraps of cloth will be allowed to remain where they’ve scattered across this desert plain, those bodies that are left below are now afforded some measure of safety in final rest–if not peace from prying eyes.