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Ancient Human Spines Threaded Onto Posts Found In Peru


Ben Taub


Ben Taub

Freelance Writer

Benjamin holds a Master's degree in anthropology from University College London and has worked in the fields of neuroscience research and mental health treatment.

Freelance Writer


Examples of vertebrae on posts. Image Credit: C. O’Shea

Researchers excavating 500-year-old graves in southern Peru have unearthed 192 human spines threaded onto reed posts.

Describing this remarkable discovery in the journal Antiquity, the authors say this unusual assemblage of human vertebrae may have provided a means for indigenous people to reconstruct dead bodies damaged by European grave robbers.


The skewered spines were recovered from burial sites in the Chincha Valley, where the local community was decimated by famine and disease epidemics following the arrival of Europeans.

According to the researchers, the Chincha population declined from over 30,000 households in 1533 to just 979 half a century later, and many of the dead would have been ritually buried along with precious items made of gold.

It is therefore telling that all of the vertebrae-on-posts were dated to between 1450 and 1650 CE, a period when European colonialists raided and destroyed large numbers of indigenous graves in the region.

“Looting was primarily intended to remove grave goods made of gold and silver and would have gone hand in hand with European efforts to eradicate Indigenous religious practices and funerary customs,” explained study author Dr Jacob Bongers in a statement.


“These 'vertebrae-on-posts' were likely made to reconstruct the dead in response to grave looting,” he said, adding that these oddly assembled human spines “represent a direct, ritualized, and Indigenous response to European colonialism.”

Vertebrae-on-post. Image: Jacob L. Bongers

This theory is backed up by radiocarbon dating suggesting that the threading of these vertebrae onto reed posts was carried out after the initial burial, while further archaeological evidence supports the idea that local indigenous cultures were concerned with the integrity of dead bodies.

For instance, the authors mention that Incan child sacrifices often involved “non-bloody” killing techniques such as “strangulation or live burial, allegedly in the belief that nothing ‘incomplete’ should be offered [as a sacrifice] to the sun.”

They also note that the Chinchorro people, who inhabited the nearby Atacama Desert several millennia earlier, displayed a similar interest in keeping dead bodies intact, and developed the first known mummification techniques anywhere in the world. To maintain the rigidity of these mummies, the Chinchorro often threaded wooden sticks through their vertebrae.

Another spine on a reed post, this time with the skull attached. Image: Jacob L. Bongers

Based on all of this evidence, the study authors conclude that the vertebrae-on-posts discovered in the Chincha Valley represent a continuation of this practice of preserving the wholeness of dead bodies, and was conducted in order to reconstruct corpses that had been destroyed by looters.

More broadly, they say that such practices reflect the funerary customs and beliefs of ancient South American cultures, for whom “body parts continued to live social lives long beyond biological death.”


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