There are many ways to preserve a body. In fact, in many environments, mere burial would provide natural mummification. The Chinchorro people are clearly going above and beyond just preservation. After all, they lived in the desert; the dry sand would do the job naturally if they wanted.
For example, a part of Chinchorro ritual is taking out human internal organs and soft tissue and replacing them with hair, vegetable fibers, clay, and fur, to name a few. None of this is necessary to preserve a body. This leads many to question why they are taking these extreme measures? Why take away so much of the human element to replace it with other materials?
One explanation for this behavior is that the Chinchorro people were not trying to preserve the body in it’s physical state, but perhaps trying to mold and transform the actual bodies
into something else– something more in the form of art. In mummification, bodies were taken apart, then reassembled and decorated with ash paste and color. The mummies were also adorned with wigs and sometimes masks. Clearly, the visual aspect of these creations was important. Bernardo Arriaza, a scholar of physical anthropology, explores the idea of the mummies as ritual art in his article, “Making the Dead Beautiful: Mummies as Art” (http://www.archaeology.org/online/features/chinchorro/). Specifically, Arriaza cites “the plasticity of their shapes, colors, and the mixed media used in their creation,” as indicators of their function as art. Arriaza sees the mummies as “statues, the encased skeletons of departed ones.” In this way, we can view the Chinchorro mummies as a form of “ritual art,” which can be generally defined as symbolic objects with spiritual meaning.
One important aspect of these mummies to note is that they were not merely objects on display. Arriaza mentions that there was a significant amount of “wear and tear” endured by these mummies. These were functional objects, probably ritual in nature, which the Chinchorro people actively used. The true use of these mummies is a topic of debate. Arriaza suggested in his article that these could have been enshrined, either domestically or communally. The only problem with this assertion is that the mummies probably were not only enshrined. The amount of damage and maintenance done
to these ritual objects seems to imply more activity. Arriaza also suggests that these mummies were used in processions. Not only were the mummies functioning ritual objects, they were portable pieces of art. This explanation could account for the “wear and tear”, but what follows is the question of why. Why were the dead mummified and perhaps carried in processions? We have mentioned that the Chinchorro were non-discriminatory in their mummification; everyone could undergo this mortuary treatment, regardless of sex, age, social status, etc. Were all of the mummies, then, used to the same extent? Were the processions for all the dead?
Nevertheless, it seems likely that the mummies were seen as temporary pieces of ritual art. While they were once used or displayed, they were not excavated in these contexts. Rather, the mummies were discovered in fairly simple and unremarkable burials. Arriaza asserts that in these burials there were few burial goods. These were not elaborate displays of wealth, and there does not seem to be a need to supply the dead with everything he or she will need in the afterlife. The Chinchorro were probably not focused on solely preparing their dead for the afterlife, but rather preserving them for their ritual role amongst the living.
Perhaps the period in which the mummies were “active” was the transitional period in which the soul of the deceased is still around. Arnold Van Gennep, an early ethnographer, explained such transitional periods in his work The Rites of Passage. Van Gennep outlined three phases of rites of passage: separation, transition, and re-incorporation. The dead are separated from the living in death. The transitional period is the time in which the
deceased are transformed into mummies and kept on display or used for various ritual purposes. This time might also have been seen as the time during which the souls were traveling to the next world. Because the burials were not individual but communal (usually 4-6 related individuals), the act of burying the mummies could have served as a sort of re-incorporation into a new community of the ancestors (other mummies). According to this theory, once the ritual art of the mummy is no longer in use, when the soul moves on to another existence, the body is buried in a relatively simple manner.