Thursday, August 10, 2017

Huaca Malena

On July 21st, the same day that we visited the cave with the mysterious bones, Orlando and I traveled a bit further south along the Pan-American Highway to Huaca Malena.

Huaca Malena is a precolumbian site in the district of Asia, a couple of miles inland from the coastline.  The site was first established about 200 C.E. but subsequently was apparently all but abandoned for an extended period.  It gained new life as a Wari ceremonial center and necropolis from about 700 C.E. to about 1100 C.E.

The site consists of a large mud-brick platform, with associted terraces, altogether encompassing several acres.  It was first described scientifically in the 1920s by Peruvian archaeologist Julio C. Tello.  Tello and his associates discovered some 300 mummy bundles at Huaca Malena, establishing Huaca Malena as one of the most important pre-Columbian cemeteries on the central coast, along with Paracas and Ancón.

Like many other archaeological sites, after initial study Huaca Malena was left largely unstudied and unprotected and several decades of unscrupulous and indiscriminate looting ensued.

I knew of the looting and thus had a sense of what we'd see, but I was unprepared for the level of destruction visited upon the place and for the sight of a relatively recently-looted mummy abandoned on the surface.

The sheer scale of the damage is sobering. The upper level of the mound has been cratered and almost all architectural features obliterated.

The scale of what has been lost to looters is evinced by the hundreds of skulls that litter the site.

Orlando and I wandered about the mound for over an hour, checking out the exposed remains and artifacts.

One notable feature, among all the piles of skulls and bones, was the high proportion of deformed skulls. Cranial deformation was practiced by several ancient Peruvian cultures and was usually reserved as a mark of high status birth.  The large percentage of them attests to Huaca Malena's importance and the high status of those who were buried there.

 There was also evidence of the sophistication of the ancient Peruvians who lived in the Mala Valley surrounding Huaca Malena, in the form of at least one trephinated skull.

Trephination, or trepanning, is a type of surgical intervention in which a hole is made through the skull to expose the brain, or at least the dura mater, and thus relieve swelling or pressure from injuries. It is, in essence, an early form of brain surgery.  The healing surrounding the opening in the skull in the photo above points to that surgery having been successful, at least insofar as that the individual must have lived for a good length of time following it.

In addition to human bones, Huaca Malena is also littered with the detritus of whatever else the looters did not want.

We found this lovely little woven bag near the exposed mummy.  Orlando, who knows textiles, was able to immediately tell that it was made from a combination of cotton fabric and llama or alpaca wool.  It was sad to know that instead of being in a museum it would just sit there and rot away.

In addition to many textile remnants, we also encountered the remains of several other types of grave goods, including corn cobs, gourds, pacae pods, and camelid bones.

We were particularly surprised when a number large oddly-shaped stones associated with graves --or at least with the pits from which mummies had been looted-- turned out to be whale vertebrae.  Where they grave offerings?  Grave markers? A sign of special status?  However they were intended, they were certainly impressive.

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