Pre-Inca Painted Skulls Using Red Pigments

Pre-Inca Painted Skulls Using Red Pigments

It is commonly known that Pre-Inca painted skulls using red pigment in what is now Peru and lengthened the ones of their newborns. According to a recent study, people painted their ancestors’ skulls with crimson pigments millennia ago using their fingers.

The Late Intermediate Period (900 CE–1450 CE) saw the development of the pre-Columbian Chincha culture in what is now the southwest of Peru, close to the Pacific Ocean. The Chincha culture merged with the Inca Empire around 1480 AD, and a few decades after the Spanish conquest of Peru began in 1532 AD, the Chincha lineages vanished.

A recent study that examined hundreds of broken red-painted Chincha skulls and artifacts demonstrates that this act not only connected the living and the dead, but it also “spiritually protected” graves against grave robbery.

Pre-Inca Painted Skulls: Closer Relationships with the Dead

pre-inca red painted skull
In many ancient societies, painting skulls with various red paints was a widespread activity. A recent investigation found that the chemicals utilized varied by class.

The new report was released in the Journal of Anthropological Archaeology‘s March 2023 issue. According to the study’s first author Jacob Bongers, an anthropological archaeologist at Boston University, the new investigation requires examining hundreds of human remains and artifacts discovered in the Chincha Valley of southern Peru.

The skulls were discovered in more than 100 chullpas, which are substantial mausoleum-like buildings used for family burials. The dates for all of the bone and artifact samples ranged from 1000 to 1825 AD. The Chincha people were found to have “painted their ancestors’ corpses with red color,” according to the researchers. According to Bongers, this practice was “essential for forging tight bonds between the living and the dead.”

Skulls Were Painted Red at Pivotal Moments of Their Transformation

pre-inca chullpas
The rural areas of Peru are littered with pre-Inca chullpas, or burial towers.

The humans painted large vertical and horizontal lines on the skulls, according to the researchers’ findings, which is consistent with “someone using their fingers” as application tools. Different combinations of red paint were used on various skulls, and it was discovered that only specific people’s skulls had been painted after passing away.

According to the researchers’ statement that “death was not the end,” finger painting skulls was presumably done as part of a ceremony. That ceremony, according to speculation, was presumably created to “give the dead a new form of social life.” Additionally, the red paint ceremony was “a crucial transition from one condition to another, and a significant moment of metamorphosis into another kind of existence, giving the foundation for subsequent life.”

Even Elongated Skulls Were Painted Red

pre-inca skull painted red ceremony
In ceremonies where some skulls were painted with crimson color using a fingertip, the Chincha civilization interred its deceased in chullpas.

The researchers took samples of red pigment from 38 different artifacts and bones, including 25 human skulls, in order to draw their conclusions. Even though the majority of the tested skulls were male, the painted bones also included those of women, children, traumatized patients, and those with elongated skulls.

The team used three scientific methods to determine the chemical make-up of the red paints. On 24 of the samples, hematite-like ochres with an iron base served as the pigments. According to the latest study, thirteen paint mixtures made from mercury-based cinnabar had distinct indications of both. The chemical research also revealed that the hematite was most likely sourced locally, while the cinnabar was brought from locations hundreds of kilometres distant. These variations “may reflect elite and non-elite utilization of colours,” the researchers noted.

Pre-Inca Painted Skulls and Bones Red to Protect Graves from Post-Conquest Chaos

pre-inca skull deformation
In numerous pre-Inca tribes, deliberate skull deformation or head sculpting was frequent. Some of these also had various crimson pigments “finger painted” on them.

The researchers assume that some of the painted skulls were transferred and subsequently placed over other graves as a means of safeguarding the deceased. The painted skulls were said to have been painted for protection after being “desecrated” by tomb robbers in the smoke of the European invasion, according to their theory, and were discovered in chullpas where tombs had been robbed.

The Chincha peoples “used fabrics, leaves, and their own hands to apply red pigment to human remains,” the researchers wrote in a summary of their new findings. In addition, this new paper “brings to light this living-dead link as well as social disparities for others to see” by disclosing so much about the historical finger painting practice.

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