Painting the Dead

As discussed in our previous post, the Chinchorro mummies were most likely put on display for the living to see and probably interact with. The Chinchorro, however, were not the only people to do this. Other mummies from more recent time periods were also exhibited publicly and were meaningful to the living. For example, the Ch’an Masters (priests) of medieval China were mummified and idolized. The practice of preserving the bodies of important priests began during the Chin Dynasty in 266 CE and continues today. The rituals performed on the bodies of the Ch’an Masters included removal of the intestines, anointing the body, and decorating the body with gold chips. These mummies sometimes became the central focus of local cults, and were seen as holy and spiritually pure because their body did not decay. Thus, their role in life (to remain physically and mentally pure) was reflected in their mortuary treatment. This form of artificial mummification was “thought of as a means to preserve the remains of Buddhist priests whose innate spiritual purity was such that their bodies did not decompose after death,” (Sharf 1992: 9). Some of these preserved monks were worshiped as “flesh icons.” This example, like the Chinchorro, shows that some mummies were made as much for the living as they were for the dead. In this case, the priests were mummified to preserve and reflect their pure state, but they were also used by the living in cults. Like the Chinchorro, the Ch’an Masters were transformed from mere bodies into forms of ritual art that were both displayed and used.

Head of Red Mummy
Red Chinchorro Mummy Head

One facet of this transformation involves the treatment and the decoration of the body of the deceased. It is important to note that the living control this process, imbuing corpses with new social identities. As scholars of mortuary practices suggest, “the body, sacred in life, is profane in death. The dead body lacks health, vitality, and beauty, its erstwhile owner having once and for all lost control over its presentation and individuality,” (Hallam, Hockey, and Howarth 1999: 131-2). Therefore, the living take control of the presentation of corpses. The living have the power to restore health, vitality and beauty to the dead. Painting of the dead bodies is often one significant aspect of restoring this vitality.

 As mentioned in our previous “Basics” blog, Chinchorro mummies were painted black or red, and in a few cases were covered in mud. There was little overlap in this particular mortuary treatment; mummies were painted black from 5,000 – 3,000 BCE, while mummies were painted red sometime between 3,000 and 2,000 BCE. The few mud-coated mummies were from the first half of the 2nd century BCE. However, there are a few exceptions to this standard. There was one case in which a mummy was painted both black with red and yellow stripes on his torso and arms.


Trunk of Black Mummy. In the case of the Chinchorro mummies, painting the bodies was one way in which the living attempted to revitalize and regenerate the dead.

Depiction of Striped Chinchorro Mummy

Painting of the deceased or their mummies is certainly not a practice unique to the Chinchorro. Similar painted mummies have also been found from Melanesian cultures. In Torres Strait, for example, bodies of the dead would be set outside for a few days; they would be placed on raised platforms with fires below them in order for the bodies to be dried out. After the body was dried, the skin and internal organs would be removed, and the internal cavity would be filled with natural fibers. Then the body was “latched to a rectangular wooden framework and hung up to dry behind a grass screen” (Pretty and Calder 1980: 200). After several months of drying, the mummy would be adorned with shells, grass, and palm fronds. Finally, the body would be painted in red ochre. After this process was complete, the decorated mummy, “on its frame,” would be hung in the surviving spouse’s house until it finally crumbled. Similar traditions can be found in various other tribal cultures in and around Melanesia.

We can only speculate about the motivations leading to the painting of mummies in these cultures. Mario Rivera, an expert on Chinchorro mummies, postulates that the high frequency of red pigment indicates “an emphasis on fertility and possibly life after death” (Rivera 1995: 63). This speculation could hold true for the Melanesian mummies as well. Rivera speculates that the cross-cultural use of red pigment to paint mummies could be representative of blood; therefore, the painting of the Chinchorro mummies and the Melanesian mummies could be an attempt of the living to restore vitality to the dead. Bernardo Arriaza offers similar interpretations, also associating the color red with blod, as well as life in the world of the living and the“afterworld.” There is less evidence from other cultures about the use of black paint during the process of mummification, but Arriaza suggests that “black is equated with darkness, like the night, invisible yet present. Black is what is hidden, it is a mystical transition” (Arriaza 1970:120). He further interprets that black is a symbol of death, but not the “end of a cycle.” It shows a transition from one state to the next. The brown color of the mud covered mummies may represent a return to the earth.

Chinchorro Black Mummy Skeleton

The painting of mummies and other related mortuary treatments indicates that while the Chinchorro were a relatively simple society, they had a complex ideology relating to death. For both the Chinchorro and the Melanesians, the use of these techniques to decorate and treat the body may represent the living’s attempts to restore the lost “health, vitality, and beauty” to the dead. This regeneration of a social identity could have been aimed towards helping the deceased to become more alive in death, or perhaps it was a way for the living to view their deceased friends and relatives in a less profane light. Restoring this new life might have been a way for the dead to remain among the living for a little longer.


Arriaza, Bernardo. 1995. Beyond Death: The Chinchorro Mummies of Ancient Chile. (Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press).

Aufderheide, Arthur C. 2003. The Scientific Study of Mummies. (U.K.: Cambridge University Press).

Calder, Angela and Graeme Pretty. 1980. “Mummification in Australia and Melanesia,” in Mummies, Disease, and Ancient Cultures. (U.K.: Cambridge University Press).

Hallam, Elizabeth; Hockey, Jenny and Glennys Howarth. 1999. Death and Social Identity. (London, England: Routledge Press).

Rivera, Mario. 1995. “The Pre-Ceramic Chinchorro Complex of Northern Chile: Context, Style, and Purpose.”

Sharf, Robert H. 1992. “The Idolization of Enlightenment: On the Mummification of Ch’an Masters in Medieval China.” (Chicago: University of Chicago Press).

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