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Thesis Format

Integrated Article


Doctor of Philosophy




Nelson, Andrew J.


Death is not only the cessation of life; it is a social transformation. This dissertation investigates funerary practices that facilitated that transformation on the pre-Hispanic central coast of Peru from ca. 1000 - 1532 CE, a time of local consolidation of power after the dissolution of the Wari Empire (600-1100 CE), through to the expansion of the Inca Empire (1450 – 1532 CE). This work focuses on the practices of two archaeological cultures on the central coast of Peru: the Ychsma and the Chancay. Ritual economy, with its integration of agency and political economy, is used as a theoretical framework for studying mortuary variation. Andean funerary bundles (also known as fardos) consist of human remains wrapped in layers of textiles. The objective of this dissertation is to create a methodological approach to analyzing these textile funerary bundles using funerary taphonomy and to apply those methods to the reconstruction of funerary practices to produce information on religious-political relationships. Bundle wrappings pose a challenge to data collection, and studies have historically relied on destructive methods. Therefore, this research uses non-destructive radiographic techniques to avoid unwrapping. Methodological issues are addressed, such as how to systematically assess taphonomy from radiographic imaging.

A taphonomic scoring system was devised and multimodal paleoradiography maximized data collection. Through an integrated biocultural approach that uses taphonomy, ethnohistoric research, and theoretical discussions of Andean ontology, the results show evidence of a ritual complex among the Ychsma that involved the removal of skulls, delayed burial, differential access to intentional natural mummification, and the inclusion of ritually significant objects in select non-elite burials. Comparatively, these practices were less frequent among the Chancay. The preservation of the body and body part retention reflected an overall worldview of retaining a connection with the dead through multiple strategies that persisted into the Inca era. This work explores how to use paleoradiography, funerary taphonomy, and social theory to understand past deathways, as well as to produce an analysis of how peoples of the central coast treated their dead during a time of localized sociopolitical control through to their annexation under the Inca empire.

Summary for Lay Audience

People have distinct ways of understanding and responding to death, which are shaped by how they view the world. This dissertation focuses on funerary bundles from the central coast of pre-Hispanic Peru that date to 1000 – ca. 1532 CE, when local groups controlled this region after the collapse of the Wari Empire (600-1100 CE) and during the later Inca Empire (1470 – 1532 CE). Using a biocultural perspective, this research compares the funerary practices of two groups on the central coast: the Ychsma and the Chancay.

The deathways of these people involved wrapping the deceased in textiles to create bundles. To study their contents, these bundles can be unwrapped, but this will destroy them. To avoid unwrapping, this research uses radiography, x-rays and computed tomography (CT) scans, to view inside. Using this technology requires new ways of thinking about and collecting data. This research proposes a method of recording how intact the human remains are inside these bundles using radiographic images. Viewing inside these bundles with radiography allows bioarchaeologists to answer research questions while conserving these remains.

Using skeletal data, knowledge of how human bodies decay, and an analysis of burial offerings, this research explores the religious-political relationships of these people through the material culture of rituals and the resources required for them, i.e., the ritual economy. The results show that even “lower class” people may have still venerated their dead. These practices may have differed from how the elites were treated, such as keeping the skull rather than revisiting ancestors in tombs. Non-elite people also had access to key religious items, though not in the same quantity. This research shows that the Chancay and Ychsma samples differed, with body preservation and the inclusion of important funerary objects in select non-elite burials occurring less frequently among the Chancay. Subtle differences in funerary customs between these two groups lasted through the Inca era, showing that local customs continued after the coast became part of the Empire. These results provide a roadmap for future scholars for how we might study death in the past using non-destructive methods.

Creative Commons License

Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 4.0 License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 4.0 License.

Available for download on Friday, September 01, 2023