The long, lonely dirt road that steers off the highway from Nasca to Chauchilla heads straight into low hills, crossing a vacant, almost lunar landscape. It is difficult to imagine even an isolated homestead thriving amidst this inhospitable desolation.
At the roadâ€™s end, footpaths guide you to several open pits, shielded from the sun by raised poles and wood-slat canopies. Inside lie some artifacts of the culture that flourished here from 200 B.C. to 800 A.D., including ceramics, textiles and stone tools alongside mummified remains.
Nearby, the mysterious Nasca lines, scratched across southern Peru by an ancient civilization, have left the world guessing as to their meaning and purpose. There is, however, no mystery regarding how this mysterious ancient culture cared for its dead.
Located about 30 kilometers (two miles) from the small town of Nasca, the Cementario de Chauchilla, or Chauchilla Cemetery, features bones, textiles, hair, and even some skin that were preserved in underground vaults constructed of mud bricks and buried for over 1000 years. The Nasca people wrapped their deceased in finely embroidered cotton cloths before coating them with a resin and placing them into tombs in crouched positions. Grave offerings were stored beside them, possibly in anticipation of their protection in the next realm. The resin and textiles kept out insects and bacteria, slowing the decay process while the hot climate and arid soil created an environment suitable for natural mummification.
Today, centuries later, bleached white skeletons, some still with dreadlocks, crouch upright on the floors of their ancient tombs, favoring visitors with creepy grins. The few sightseers stand by silently, mystified. The mummies stare back, appearing just as amazed at the passage of time that has brought them together with us.
Although the arid desert protected the remains from time and decay, it could not safeguard them from huaqueros, or grave robbers. Over the years, poles were stuck into the ground to locate the tombs and mummies were ripped apart in the search for anything thought to be of value. Nothing exemplified this tragedy more than a simple gaze across the ground where, until 1997, in a scene more fitting for forensic anthropologists than tourists, broken pot shards and litter, human rib bones, shoulder blades and skull fragments lay scattered across the grayish-brown desert floor. Today, the burial sites have been reconstructed although many â€śscarsâ€ť remain in the sand.
A visit to the Chauchilla cemetery takes about three hours, including travel time from Nasca. The tour can be purchased as part of a package with flights over the Nasca lines, which can save a few dollars. The price includes a side trip to local artisan workshops, where one can observe traditional methods of gold extraction and ceramic firing and, of course, buy souvenirs.
In a morbidly interesting way, Chauchilla presents a view of culture that cannot easily be forgotten.