The Mysterious Mummies of Chile

In preparation for the opening of “Mummies of the World” at the end of this month (Member preview: Friday, 9/23, public opening at Noon on Saturday, 9/24) we will be posting a series of blogs exploring the science of mummification. Today, the subject will be Chinchorro mummies.


Photo courtesy of wikimedia commons:,_south_coast_of_Peru_or_north_coast_of_Chile,_5000-2000_BC_-_San_Diego_Museum_of_Man_-_DSC06921.JPG

Most people associate mummies with ancient Egypt, but the Egyptians were not the first, nor the most successful artists in that craft. Both of those titles belong to South America. Some of the oldest artificially preserved mummies ever found were made by artisans of the Chinchorro culture in what is now Chile. The Chinchorro culture began mummifying their dead more than 7,000 years ago, 2,000 years before the Egyptians adopted the process.

Although the best preserved mummies produced in South America date to long after the Chinchorro disappeared, more in the range of a thousand years ago, the Chinchorro mummies are still quite complex. There are generally considered to be 3 phases of Chinchorro mummification method:

-mud coated

(Sometimes different phrasing is used, or the periods in which elaborate preservation methods are not used are added)

The earliest method of artificial mummification practiced by the Chinchorro, the black method, is quite interesting. The body of the deceased would be skinned, then the bones cleaned. Once those bones were nice and clean-ish, they would be tied back together with cordage, usually made of plant fiber. The jaw would be lashed to the skull, the joints would be tied together and reinforced with sticks to form kind of a skeletal armature. After that, the skin would go back over the body.


Photo courtesy of wikimedia commons:

Unfortunately, the skin of Chinchorro mummies was preserved in a rather rudimentary way: by drying, sometimes over hot coals or ash. A side effect of this drying process is shrinkage. In fact, this same method was often used to preserve the famous shrunken heads produced by certain Amazonian cultures. In the Amazon, the shrinkage made for a nice, portable trophy/spiritual symbol, but for the Chinchorro it just made things more complicated. In order to fit back over the body, the skin of some Chinchorro mummies was patched up with the skin of animals like seals and pelicans. The resulting bag of bones would then be stuffed with plant material to look more plump and lively.

Next comes the head. The head would often be cut from the body before the skinning process began, possibly in order to clean the brain out. It was desirable that the ancestors have faces in the afterlife, but a face can be a hard thing to preserve, so a new one would often be shaped out of a grey paste made from ash and some kind of binder, like eggs, or animal blood. These faces are kind of the trade mark of the Chinchorro mummies. They are pretty creepy: they have little, round eyes and a gaping mouth. Some say they look very surprised, or perhaps terrified. I think they look rather childish and innocent. They remind me of the crude figures produced by pre-schoolers I used to present to.

And in a way, they do represent a sort of innocence. The Chinchorro people were hunter-gatherers, who had no social stratification. The mummies belonging to this culture that have been discovered show no signs of social differentiation, they all have the same delicate mother of pearl fish hooks, the same basketry buried with them. Some studies have found that men are more commonly found to be buried with hunting tools, like atlatls, while women are more commonly buried with fishing tools, but this is simply a division of labor based on sex, one job does not seem to hold higher esteem than the other.


Bodies in the sand found at Arica, a major Chinchorro site. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia comons:

So in a way you could say that these burials: not beautiful, but executed with a level of difficulty to suggest great love and devotion, do represent a very different, if not innocent, motive for mummification. The Egyptians and the Inca used their most elaborate processes of mummification to preserve their elite, while commoners just did the best they could. Some suggest that this unique, egalitarian practice of mummification in Chile was the result of frequent climate change. In wetter periods, populations of fishing villages would boom, and their toolkits would be refined by the innovation associated with these boom periods. Thanks to the changing climate, villagers would uncover the naturally mummified corpses of their predecessors in the desert, exposed after storms or by the wind, and would assume that this process of preservation is necessary for one to enter the next life. Over time, artificial mummification would become popular, as people sought to ensure that they were preserved for the next world.


Photo courtesy of Desert Exploring

It is likely this boom and bust pattern that allowed complex ritual behavior to evolve in a society that was less politically complex than Ancient Egypt, or the Inca Empire. The Egyptian mummification processes, for example,  evolved as their political system, with its organization and improved infrastructure, also evolved. Essentially, as their population grew over time, their political and social systems were refined and developed.  The Chinchorro were developing their elaborate burial practices without having to also increase their political complexity. Population growth occurred as a result of the environment changing favorably. In their generous environment, there was no pressure to make up complex, hierarchical, political systems in order to survive.

This is the theory that some archaeologist propose, however the Chinchorro people still hold on to some of their mysteries, and researchers are looking forward to discovering more details as the mummies are studied.

If this article has wet your apatite for more mummy knowledge, check out www.mummies of the for information on our upcoming exhibit!


Return to Paraguay: Conserving the Taguá, a Living Fossil

In 1972, mammalogist Ralph Wetzel and colleagues were studying armadillo ectoparasites in the Paraguayan Chaco when they came upon a peccary (what we call javelina in Texas) that didn’t look like those already known to science. The result was Catagonus wagneri – the Chacoan peccary, known only from a fossil discovered in 1930 by Argentinian paleontologist Rusconi. During the next two decades following this discovery, a cadre of various scientists ventured to Paraguay to learn everything they could about this rare living fossil. Some such as Jon Mayer and Phil Brandt went on to other careers, while others such as noted peccary biologist Lyle Sowls have passed on.


Chacoan peccary or taguá (Catagonus wagneri).

I was fortunate in being the youngest of this earlier wave of scientists. In 2008, for my first blog ever for BEYONDbones, I wrote about my experience in the Paraguayan Chaco, fresh out of undergraduate training. Here is the part relevant to today’s blog, taken directly from the Introduction of the 2008 blog:

“I spent 1989-1990 studying a semi-captive baited herd of Chacoan peccaries (Catagonus wagneri), an endangered medium-sized mammal endemic to the Chaco biome of central South America; taguá is the Guaraní Indian word for this distant relative of the pig sub-order. They are extremely rare, and very few people ever see a live one in the wild. Writing this piece takes me back to a time when I accomplished a lot by knowing very little. Only in my early 20s, I did a lot of growing up during my stint in the Chaco – hot water, electricity, air-conditioning, phones, TVs, stereos, etc. were nonexistent in my life, but the fauna was diverse and abundant, and the studies I was able to accomplish during my time there paved way for a lifetime of disciplined work.”

In early February 2016, I received an invitation to attend an international workshop in Asunción (Paraguay’s capital) dedicated to creating an action plan for the taguá. I received this with very mixed feelings, having not worked intensively with taguá for nearly three decades since I was very young and very green. I contacted the workshop coordinator to express my concern, and she gently and politely let me know that it was her hopes to get all the taguá biologists, present and past, together in one room, where the young could learn from the older and vice-versa. After figuring out how to get to the meeting and get the necessary blessings and permissions, I was holding plane tickets to return to Paraguay…

When I first went to Paraguay in the late 1980s to work with taguá, barely a handful of people were interested in this endangered species, let alone conserving them. I was truly heartened to see that has changed at this workshop!  All the necessary stakeholders were represented at the meeting – not just scientists, but also indigenous Guaraní who depend on taguá for protein and the hide for other uses. Landowners and administrators who advise ranchers on integrating wildlife and ranching were present, including representatives from the Mennonite colonies (Mennonites occupy a good chunk of the range where taguá occur in Paraguay) and important government officials including the heads of National Parks for certain states.


Geographic range of the Taguá in the Chaco of Bolivia, Paraguay and Argentina.

In total there more than 30 representatives from the range of the taguá (Argentina, Paraguay and Bolivia) as well as a few biologists from other countries who met from late February to early March for a week of intensive meetings. On the first day of the meeting, the taguá biologists worked on reviewing the taguá’s status and distribution, and generating a population viability and habitat suitability analysis (PVHA) using a computer modeling program called Vortex. Various life history parameters from data I collected as a youth were entered into the computer program, and it spat out the number of individuals necessary to conserve the taguá well into the future.


During the remaining three days, participants worked on identifying a vision for the action plan based on the main primary threats to the taguá. Participants were separated into three break-out working groups (habitat loss, hunting, lack of knowledge) to determine isolating problems and goals and actions that address the main threats to the taguá. The latter group (lack of knowledge) also worked on identifying potential roles for captive breeding programs. Additionally, a network of committed professionals and institutions was created to put the recommendations and priority actions into practice.


The habitat loss break-out working group.

I think everyone enjoyed getting to work with other like-minded people toward a common goal. It was a lot of fun reuniting with old friends after so many years, as well as building new friendships. Hopefully, the governments of Argentina, Paraguay and Bolivia will incorporate the action plan into their respective conservation planning.

Today, Juan Campos is the director of the project I worked on so many years ago. The project’s name has been changed to CCCI/Proyecto Taguá (translated: Chaco Center for Conservation and Investigations/The Taguá Project). Juan is a true gentleman and is doing some outstanding work!  We are currently making plans to collaborate on various projects.


Juan Campos, left, with a current version of yours truly.


Me circa 1989.

The man who initially sent me to Paraguay was Dr. Kurt Benirschke, who was one of the originators of the concept of breeding endangered species in captivity as a conservation tool. He is also the father of former San Diego Charger’s star kicker, Rolf Benirschke! Kurt instilled some great concepts in me at a very young age, like the one and only medicine you need in life is hard work. He used to tell wonderful stories of wildlife encounters he had in Paraguay and other areas. I remember on one such occasion he was telling me that just 25 years ago (some time around 1964), massive woolly spider monkeys or muriquis (Brachyteles arachnoides) lived in the tri-country region of I’guasu, but sadly the species had gone extinct. One of the most funny, yet very real and bittersweet moments of the week involved some storytelling of my own. Some of the younger biologists, newer yet already very experienced with Paraguay’s wildlife, were lamenting that black howler monkeys (Alouatta caraya) were now becoming extremely rare in Paraguay. I told them they were mistaken, since I remembered them from when I lived in Paraguay just 27 years ago. They were extremely common, even in the neighborhoods of Asunción, where it was possible to see them using utility lines to get around! My new, younger friends looked at each other with shock, then looked at me with suspicion, and cautiously informed me that howler monkeys disappeared from Asunción many years ago. Saddened by this, I realized that things had come full circle – another fantastic, large and charismatic vertebrate had become locally extinct in another span of roughly 25 years. Hopefully it won’t be too late for the taguá…

Camera trap captures video of kinkajou in South America

Tom Williams, my father-in-law, is a retired oil prospector who has a fascination with all things science and engineering. As such, he always gets me gifts for birthdays and holidays that he thinks will benefit me in my work (scientific texts, gadgets, etc). Last May, he gave me a fairly high-tech game trail camera with mounting attachment. This was delivered to my old study site (now new again?) in the Peruvian Amazon, by Ron Rossi, a Science Technology instructor from Michigan who spends a lot of time at the Amazon Explorama Lodges, just as I used to many years ago… In fact, today Ron runs a non-profit called EKOAmazon that does wonderful things for the communities living in the region.


Kinkajou. Flickr Creative Commons.

Our initial plan was to monument the camera at a mineral lick at a reserve up the Sucusari Tributary off the Napo River, which Ron did last June. When he visited again earlier this month he realized that nothing was recorded yet, so went ahead and moved the camera to Platform 7 of Explorama’s world-famous Amazon Canopy Walkway at ACTS (Amazon Conservatory for Tropical Studies). It was with much excitement when he sent me news and the attached clip of a kinkajou (Potos flavus) visiting the bait site of bananas at Platform 7. The kinkajou is a member of the raccoon family (Procyonidae) that is built like a primate to eat fruit. It has a prehensile tail, which is strong enough to wrap about branches to secure the animal’s weight when it is foraging or moving among branches, essentially serving as a “fifth arm.”

The other exciting news is Ron was able to set up the camera at a bird’s nest. Unknowingly at the time, and very luckily, the nest happened to be that of a species of antbird of which virtually nothing is known of its nest, and absolutely nothing documented for parental care. We plan on publishing that information later, so stay tuned…

One in a million: Last-minute Bolivian bat netting yields a brand new big-eared bat

Notwithstanding the horrible tragedy of the Columbine (Colorado) incident, April 1999 was by far one of the most surreal experiences of my life. Not even a week prior to leaving, I was preparing to give final exams for courses I was teaching at the time. I was about halfway through creating an exam when I received a phone call from a former student, who sounded a bit short-winded and stressed out.

As I asked him to slow down, he explained that the environmental consulting company he worked for was between a rock and a hard place, and had to redo a series of environmental impact statements — this time using biologists experienced in the area. I immediately dismissed myself as a candidate, explaining that I had final exams to give soon, and then I was off to my site in the Peruvian Amazon where I would lead a natural history tour, followed by field work (my usual grind this time of year).

It was at this point during the conversation that some things were pointed out to me that made it difficult to say no — namely the incredible opportunity to work in one of the least explored areas in the neotropics, my specialty region of focus.

This map depicts the country of Bolivia with Chiquitano forest (light shading) extending east into Brazil, as well as Cerrado (dark shading). The dots represent the general region we worked in (map produced by K. Koy).

This map depicts the country of Bolivia with Chiquitano forest (light shading) extending east into Brazil, as well as Cerrado forest (dark shading). The dots represent the general region we worked in. (Map produced by K. Koy.)

Less than 50 hours after that life-changing phone call, I had convinced co-workers to give my finals and cover the tour in Peru for me, left my keys with someone to house-sit, and was on the red-eye to Santa Cruz, Bolivia! Also during that time, I quickly helped hire a science staff of about 30 biologists (mostly Bolivian, some ex-pats, and a couple of Argentines) to undertake a Rapid Ecological Assessment (REA) of the eastern Bolivian panhandle.

Things were very busy indeed.

The politics of the situation were gruesome, and I was ecstatic when I was finally granted permission to just begin getting people into the field to do our work. A botanist from Spain was responsible for forestry, plant community and hydrology crews, while I worked with the vertebrate zoology crews (birds, fish, herps, two mammal crews). Wanting to become involved “on the ground,” I joined up with the mammal crew and we got ourselves situated at the base camp, Las Conchas.

Julieta Vargas and Hugo Aranibar, young mammalogists from the Colección Boliviana de Fauna (National Museum in La Paz), José Manuel Rojas (also a mammalogist) from the Museo de Historia Natural Noel Kempff Mercado (in Santa Cruz), a couple of others, and myself comprised the mammal teams. Although they were allowed to leave a full day before me (via four-wheel drive vehicles) while I was stuck in administrative hell in Santa Cruz — my helicopter ride to Las Conchas more than a day later actually landed me at the remote field site half a day before their arrival.

After resting up the first night, we were ready to hit the field! The only problem was inclement weather that prevented helicopter flight to some of our target areas. After several hours we became bored with no entertainment, save a deck of cards. So we decided to inventory the region around the base camp.

On the evening of April 17, Julieta, Hugo and José Manuel snuck off to do some bat netting. Any seasoned bat netter knows that nets need to be monumented in a long continuous linear run, sometimes with a T-head on the end, but always surrounding a resource (e.g., a fruiting tree, a light luring in many insects, over water, etc).

Well, by the time I was able to cut loose of my meeting and catch up with them, I found that they erected only a single mist net in the middle of a small patch of savannah surrounded by patches of Cerrado forest. To make things even more dismal, it was drizzling and tiny beads of rain clung to the otherwise virtually invisible net. Another thing any seasoned bat netter can tell you is that netting in the rain is a waste of time, because the bats can detect the rain droplets on the net and will thus avoid it.

So I feared our chances of netting any bats that evening were maybe one in a million? Of course I didn’t have the heart to tell Hugo and the others that the netting was gone about all wrong — they were SO EXCITED; how could I possibly rain on their parade?

Nothing short of miraculous, we actually caught a (i.e., ONE) bat that evening. We knew it was a specimen of the genus Micronycteris (big-eared bat), but beyond that I was uncertain — it was very late, very dark, and we were very tired. We collected it and decided to key it out in the morning once recharged.

Photo of holotype of M. yatesi by A. Muñoz, provided by L. Siles.

Photo of holotype of M. yatesi by A. Muñoz, provided by L. Siles.

In the morning and through the rest of the trip, I pored through dichotomous keys, but was unable to assign our little bat to any known species previously reported for the region. Could this be something new? After convincing myself there was no way in hell we’d net a bat that evening, if the ONE that was netted turned out to be something new … that would be pretty cool. I felt a little like I was witnessing the scene in the Peanuts Christmas special when Charlie Brown buys the measly little tree that gives out and all but dies. Then his buddies come and pour some TLC into the tree and make it pretty cool after all.

After returning to the U.S., I went to visit Nancy Simmons, a Micronycteris specialist, at the American Museum of Natural History to see if she was able to designate the specimen to species level. Simmons suggested it likely represented a new species most closely allied to the Micronycteris sanborni group.

So I put out the word to other bat scientists working in Bolivia to be on the lookout for this unique little bat. After several years, we were finally able to find someone else who netted some of the unique little bats, Liz Siles.

Many years and much work later, we were finally able to describe the new species fully in a recent article in the Journal of Mammalogy. After some discussion, we decided to name this species “Yates’ big-eared bat (Micronycteris yatesi),” after our late colleague Terry Yates of the University of New Mexico and the National Science Foundation.

The etymology reads, “This species is named in honor of Terry Lamon Yates (1950–2007) for his pivotal contributions to the knowledge of Bolivian mammals, training Bolivian biologists, and starting collaborations that strengthened mammalian research and shaped current science and field biology in Bolivia.”

Since the big-eared bat find in Bolivia, it is really spectacular to see how far the main players have come. Julieta, Hugo and José Manuel were fairly young and green mammalogists at the time; today they have their own career trajectories. Julieta ultimately became Curator of Mammals at the National Museum in La Paz. Hugo went on to direct a program for the highly endangered Wattled Curassow (Crax globulsa) in Bolivia (read here for an account on this rare species). And my dear hermano boliviano José Manuel became increasingly involved in human sustainable living, now working on these projects in rural Bolivia.

As for myself, it was overwhelming how much I was able to accomplish in my career as a result of this trip. From the REA, I was able to describe two new species of mammals (a rice rat and the bat), got three wonderful mammalogy grad students working in Bolivia, and published some great manuscripts on the birds and mammals of this unique region.

Sometimes life taps you on the shoulder to take a chance. Even though I wasn’t able to administer my own finals or go to my field site in Peru that spring, this one in a million chance of a lifetime was irreplaceable – VERY glad I took the chance to stray off the beaten path.