Internal environmental characteristics of a Chiribaya style tomb holding swine remains and their taphonomic impact on decomposition delay, a requisit for mummification


  • Alison Marissa Brooks Garcia School of Anthropology, University of Arizona, Tucson, Arizona
  • Ronald G. Beckett Bioanthropology Research Institute, Quinnipiac University, Hamden, Connecticut
  • James T. Watson Arizona State Museum and School of Anthropology, University of Arizona, Tucson, Arizona



mummification, endoscopy, Chiribaya, taphonomy, Sonoran Desert


Attempts have been made to better understand the mummification processes associated with the pre-Inca culture known as the Chiribaya. The ancient Chiribaya used various textile wrappings that likely enhanced wicking of fluids out of the body thus increasing the potential for mummification. Here we examine the tomb environment itself as a probable factor in the potential mummification of human remains. To reveal more about the Chiribaya mummification process, we replicated the physical characteristics of a Chiribaya tomb in the Sonoran Desert and monitored the intra-tomb environmental changes while occupied by a swine analogue. Two identical tombs were constructed using concrete fence block measuring 152.4 by 91.4 centimeters (5 by 3 feet) and 91.4 centimeters (3 feet) deep. Tomb caps were constructed from frame mounted concrete backer board. Two data loggers for temperature and relative humidity were placed within each of the tombs. A freshly deceased 68 kilogram (150 pound) swine was wrapped in wool fabric to allow for wicking of body fluids and placed in the experimental tomb. Capped PVC access ports were introduced into the experimental tomb allowing for periodic endoscopic access. Both tombs were buried at a depth of approximately 76.2 centimeters (30 inches). The experimental tomb was monitored endoscopically to collect visual data on the condition of the swine analogue. The tombs remained buried for 95 days. The stage of decomposition was determined by the physical findings of the swine upon excavation and compared to literature reports of decomposition rates in the Sonoran Desert. Based on our observational and endoscopic data, overall mummification did not occur; however, some mummification was seen on the right jowl and the gravity dependent low pelvic region upon exhumation. This visual data allowed us to directly observe the intra-tomb processes and is correlated with data-logger information from both tombs providing us a better understanding of the associated intra-tomb environmental variations. Further, the experiment demonstrates the taphonomic impact of these artificial subterranean environments on rate of decomposition and offers insight as to how the Chiribaya tombs encouraged mummification.


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