2,280 BCE, Tattoos in Chinchorro

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The Chinchorro mummies are the remains of ancient peoples who lived in South America thousands of years ago, in the dry coastal regions of northern Chile and southern Peru.

Chichorro Culture Location (Image by Noahedits / CC BY)
Chichorro Culture Location (Image by Noahedits / CC BY)

Oldest Tattoos in the Americas

What sets these mummies apart from others discovered in the Atacama Desert is the fact that they were intentionally preserved through a process of mummification, making them the oldest known examples in the New World.

Mummification For All

Throughout history, various cultures have placed great emphasis on preserving the remains of their elite members (see the article on the Egyptian Priestess of the Middle Kingdom, Amunet). However, the Chinchorro followed a different approach.

Chinchorro Mummies of Arica (Photo by Zorka Ostojic Espinoza / CC BY)
Chinchorro Mummies of Arica (Photo by Zorka Ostojic Espinoza / CC BY)

They mummified all members of their society, including those who could not contribute to the well-being of others: elderly individuals, children, infants, and even fetuses that were miscarried. In fact, the most elaborate mummification treatments were often reserved for the youngest members of the community.

An Elaborate Process

Over time, the Chinchorro people modified their methods of mummifying the deceased. But despite these changes, certain aspects of the process remained consistent throughout their history. All soft tissues, organs, and even the brain were removed from the body.

Chinchorro Mummy (Photo by Pablo Trincado / CC BY)
Chinchorro Mummy (Photo by Pablo Trincado / CC BY)

Once the soft tissues had been extracted, the bones were reinforced with sticks, and the skin was packed with plant material before the corpse was reassembled. Additionally, a clay mask was applied to the mummy, even if it had already been completely covered in dried clay. Finally, the body was wrapped in reeds and left to dry out for a period of 30 to 40 days.

Tattooed Chinchorro Man

There is at least one Chinchorro mummy that provides a fascinating glimpse into the ancient practice of tattooing in the region. The remains of a male, who was adorned with a mustache-like dotted line tattooed above his upper lip and dated to 2,280 BCE, represent what is thought to be the earliest direct proof of tattooing in the Americas.

Tattooed Chinchorro Man (redrawn after Arriaza, 1988)
Tattooed Chinchorro Man (redrawn after Arriaza, 1988)
March 10, 2023