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sábado, 24 de febrero 2024
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The funeral trail of two indigenous ancestors

By Natalia Piedrahita Tamayo, Journalist

Two mummified bodies are exhibited at the University Museum (Muua) as part of the Anthropology Collection: one adult and one child. The child is accompanied by funerary offerings containing lithic, textile, and bone elements. Both still have their wrappings or funeral shrouds and are part of the archaeological heritage of the nation. They are currently analyzed by a student of the Faculty of Social and Human Sciences.

Photo: Communications Office/ Alejandra Uribe Fernández

Eighty years ago, Universidad de Antioquia received the mummy of an infant from Duitama, a municipality in Boyacá. The infant mummy belonged to the Muisca indigenous people, who inhabited the territory we know today as the Cundiboyacense high plains between the years 600 and 1600.

Shortly after, UdeA received the mummy of an adult from Chiscas, Boyacá. According to the registration sheet from the Colombian Institute of Anthropology and History (Icanh), this mummy was related to the culture of the Laches, indigenous farmers who once inhabited the area now known as the Natural Park “El Cocuy.” Their name is documented in several chronicles of the Spanish colonists. This mummy was approximately 22 years old at the time of death. Both bodies, along with the offerings accompanying the infant, are currently in the University Museum at the Universidad de Antioquia (Muua). At the same time, researchers from the UdeA are conducting analyses that have yielded some data and concrete details.

Regarding the adult, María Isabela Urrea Cardona, an undergraduate Anthropology student and the leader of this research, said, “By employing the relative dating technique, it was determined that this body lived approximately 800 years ago. It exhibits signs of malnutrition indicated by lines of hypoplasia—a lower than normal number of cells— in the dental pieces, as well as marks on the wrists from the rope used to maintain the fetal position in which we currently see it. So far, no fractures or sings of violent traumas have been found on him.”

These details underscore the preservation guaranteed by mummification. It is important to clarify that Urrea Cardona highlighted, “Not all cultures that once inhabited the Colombian territory resorted to mummification to preserve their deceased. Fortunately, the study of these mummies, based on archaeological records, allows us to comprehend the motivations behind these preservation processes. In addition, practices such as cremations, burials and primary inhumations for funeral rites have also been recorded,”. Upon observing the mummified bodies, she wondered about the extent of research conducted on them, and thus undertook a study exploring biological anthropology to learn about the development of past human populations.

The classification of data from these and other mummies involves bioanthropological characterization, which is an analysis of the organic and inorganic components of human remains or bodies from the past. This process yields information related to stature, sex, age, population filiation, and bone trauma, among other factors that can provide insights into the individuals housed in the museum. It is a sort of conversation with the past and with bodies that inhabited other times.

There is no broad field of research for these types of bodies in Colombia, and at Universidad de Antioquia, it represents a new line of study. “Noteworthy among existing contributions is the research of anthropologist Felipe Cárdenas Arroyo, a professor at Universidad de Los Andes, who published a chronology of Colombian mummies dating back to the 4th century A.D. One of the most prevalent funerary practices in Antioquia is human cremation. Although researchers such as Elda Otero de Santos have reported findings on this and other types of human burials in the department's rock shelters, it is a subject on which there is still much to be done,” warned Julián David Arias Quintero, a professor and researcher at the Faculty of Social and Human Sciences and a consultant for this study.

Both groups, the Laches and the Muiscas, were connected through the Chibcha language and by inhabiting the same territory: the Eastern Cordillera of the Andes, in the Colombian Massif. Both cultures practiced mummification through dehydration and employed indirect fire methods to avoid burning the tissues of the bodies that they treated. In 1945, Eliécer Silva Celis, an archaeologist and an expert in Chibcha culture, discovered in Boyacá many of the mummies that are currently preserved in different museums across Colombia.

Funerary practices of the past

Funerary offerings. Photo: Communications Office/ Alejandra Uribe Fernández

Both researchers emphasize that the details of burial sites can provide clues about the beliefs and perceptions surrounding death in past civilizations. However, it is a field of study that requires caution because it is influenced by multiple variables. For example, in the case of Colombia, many funerary contexts have been looted. Individuals or groups excavated the sites to take objects considered valuable, such as gold pieces or precious stones. In addition, natural forces, including erosion and humidity, play a role in the deterioration of these sites.

“These two bodies in particular were not eviscerated—meaning their internal organs were not removed for mummification—but were treated by humans through heat. Everything that has been found so far about mummies in Colombia underscores the notion that not everyone was interred in this manner, since both groups (see box) applied practices for the deceased. These variations may have been associated with the relevance of the individuals in terms of religions, family, or society,” explained Urrea Cardona.

According to the Spanish chronicles, there were individuals who were experts in mummification. They knew, for instance, the precise distance the fire should be from the body to avoid calcination while facilitating tissue dehydration. These individuals were fundamental in the passage from life to death since they selected optimal burial environments. For example, they chose sites that were not too humid, where microbial action is more pronounced, and tissues are not preserved in the same way. Many mummies have been found in caves, leading researchers to suggest that these indigenous groups believed that the earth’s cavities held connections to other dimensions.

This is also observed in the garments or clothing, “They used cotton to bind the bodies. This leads me to wonder whether they believed that the body should be held to travel to other spaces. It is as if their wrappings, beyond displaying the fabrics, had the purpose of containing something, perhaps related to presences akin to our contemporary concept of the soul. The shroud as a funerary wrapping has been identified in both Peru and Colombia,” said Arias Quintero.

Graciliano Arcila Velez next to the Muisca mummy. Former Anthropological Museum, 1953. Muua Archive.

With nearly 35,000 objects, the University Museum of the Universidad de Antioquia has one of the largest anthropological collections in the country. Its long-term exhibition room, housing the mummies, is open to the public and has been expanded over time: Today it is a gallery where you can see much of the known history of the human groups that once inhabited the regions of Colombia. It also includes a reserve area hosting the laboratory of collections for archaeological reference, where more than 250 scientific investigations have been carried out.

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