One of the courses I’m taking is about the culturas indígenas of Chile. Although we’re always taught that Chile was kind of a backwater in terms of native cultures (as compared with Peru’s Inka and Moche, Mexico’s Aztecs, and Guatemala’s Maya), there’s actually a rich indigenous heritage. Chile’s Atacama desert is home to the oldest mummies in the world and the Mapuche of southern Chile were the only tribe to effectively fend off the Spaniards for the duration of colonial rule (Chile had to sign a peace treaty with the Mapuche some years after Independence). Maybe our lack of knowledge about Chile’s indigenous cultures is due to the comparative poverty of these regions or maybe it has to do with the fact that they weren’t so easily beaten by Western forces. That being said, the museum has artifacts from all over Central and South America and is definitely worth a visit. Here are a few examples of what the museum has to offer.
The Inka used quipu as record-keeping devices, we believe to keep track of tribute offerings throughout the empire. Each string is made of llama or alpaca hair and has an intricate knot tied onto it. Archaeologists believe that the position of the knot, as well as the type of know and color of the string, indicate different quantities but the complete “code” of the quipus still hasn’t been broken.
The mummies of the Chinchorro people of northern Chile are the oldest known in the world. Unlike other societies, which only mummified the wealthy and powerful, the Chinchorro mummified all of their dead. The inernal organs of the deceased were removed and replaced with leaves and other plant matter. The mummies remained preserved to this day due to the severe environmental conditions of the Atacama desert (the world’s driest desert).
The Mapuche used Chemamull to mark the graves of the deceased, much as headstones are used today. However, the chemamull also had important religious significance–the chemamull helped reunite the deceased’s spirit with the ancestors. Unfortunately, the Spanish destroyed a lot of these, but some are still in existance.