Although less famous than its counterpart in Egypt, the mummification
tradition of the Incas was equally effective, technologically advanced,
and central to the worldview of the culture that
Unlike Egypt, archeologists in Peru are constantly discovering mummies
by the dozen.Today’s
New York Times contains an
article about a recent
find of 26 near the site of road construction outside of Lima. Recently
they have been turning up just below the summits of the very highest
preserved in the sub-zero temperatures.
Which is not to say that all, or even most Peruvian mummies are found
at high altitude. Although the Incas were primarily a mountain culture,
they and older, costal cultures like the Paracas, Mochica and Chimu,
also practiced mummification, and the techniques worked so well for the
same reasons they did in Egypt – the lack of humidity or temperature
changes over time.
The Dowbrigade has mixed emotions on the subject of Peruvian mummies,
as we at one point in our career actually had a run in with one, known
by the archeological sobriquet "Number 5".
At that time, twenty years ago, we were teaching English literature and linguistics at at the National University
of Peru, in Trujillo, a nice colonial city on the Pacific coast 500 kilometers
north of Lima, and living in Crazy Joe’s hostal in the nearby resort
town/surfers hangout/fishing village of Huanchaco.
Actually, we were the only one living in Crazy Joe’s Hostel, Crazy Joe
having skedaddled back to Glendale, California where he needed to deal
with some murky legal shit which we always suspected involved Crazy
Joe in the role of defendant. On his way out of town he asked the Dowbrigade
to look after the shut-down hostal, water the plants, and tell people
to go away.
As we were recently separated from wife #1, the Peruvian Princess, we
accepted. It was actually a pretty nice place, not too big, with a beautiful
garden, and two doors from the ocean. The central feature was a sturdy
brick stockade, thick-walled and windowless, with massive oak doors reinforced
in metal and set behind a wrought-iron grill. Inside, Crazy Joe
kept his collection of Peruvian textiles (those familiar with the full
dossier of the Dowbrigade may remember that this is one of our deep
loves and areas or arcane expertise).
Crazy Joe’s collection was far and away the most extensive and intense
we had ever seen outside of a museum. In addition to numerous superb
pieces of Paracas and Incan textiles unearthed by and bought from huaqueros,
archeologists or grave robbers and cultural criminals, depending on ones
point of view, Joe’s collection had one thing that no one else had.
During his peripatetic travels up and down isolated valleys in the high
andes, places you can only reach in 4-wheel drive vehicles followed by 1-3
days on horseback, buying one or two pieces of textile art off of poor Indian
farmers who may have had them in their families for generations, he discovered
that some of the best pieces appeared to be of recent vintage.
Upon investigation and several subsequent expeditions he discovered a
tiny village high in the mountains where literally every family was involved
in textile production and many of the techniques and designs that had been
thought to be lost forever were alive and well. They were producing
textiles as fine and intense as the classic masterpieces adorning museums
in Europe and North America.
Of course, the location and identity of this village was Joe’s most closely
guarded secret. Every six months or so, he would disappear for a week or
ten days and return with a dozen more of these gorgeous tapestries, each
about 3 feet by 6 feet. What colors! The designs and intensity of the
weave were stunning.
He had over 500 of these rugs, and the entire collection was easily worth several
million dollars. Joe told semi-believeable stories about selling individual
pieces to famous rock stars in LA for many thousands of dollars, and we were
fairly sure he was slowly transferring his stash from Peru to the states
without paying the appropriate taxes. This may have been the source of his legal
problems back in CA, but as the guy also has numerous weird sexual proclivities
(he wasn’t called Crazy Joe because he was zany), we were never sure.
Anyway, there we were all alone in a hostel on the beach, teaching at
a national public university in a nearby city which was closed more often
than it was open, by strikes of one of the "three estates"; one or more out of
the faculty or the students or the maintenance and clerical workers were
on strike. For months our only duty was to stop by union headquarters one
a day and sign the logbook. Checks showed up nice and regular, as though
nothing unusual was going on. Socialism – a worker’s paradise.
So one day on the beach, we meet another weird Gringo scientist. he happened
to be an archeologist from New Jersey, or more accurately now from
the University of North Carolina, who was in Peru to finish his doctoral
research on lithics in some obscure northern culture we had never heard of
and which had disappeared over 2000 years earlier. Turns out lithics
is the study of stone tools, which is about the limit of technology among
Jack the Archeologist and the Dowbrigade became fast friends, and colleagues
in fact. He had been given an office in our university, as the closest major
program of archeology to his actual excavations. This made him the only other American at the National University. He would hang out in the
field for two or three months at a time, digging stuff up, and then would
come back to Trujillo to label, catalog and pack all of the samples for shipment
back to the states. He told me he already had over 100,000 stone tools.
Frankly, they just looked like rocks to us. But Jack was engaging and weird,
and we began to regularly play chess, smoke doobies, exchange reading material and occasionally
girlfriends. Eventually we invited him to take a room at the hostel
for the brief periods when he was working out of his office at the university.
Then, on one of his expeditions onto the flank of the Andes where he was
digging, his crew discovered a series of mummies. They were primitive,
and consisted mostly of bare bones, but by their arrangement and condition
he could tell that efforts had been made to preserve them.
Four mummified skeletons were found in normal Peruvian burial position;
knees to chest, arms crossed, in large ceramic urns buried in the earth. But
as they were preparing to leave the site the final time, one of the diggers
noticed signs that a large boulder in the middle of the burial pattern was
not there naturally. His interest piqued, Jack decided to wait one more
day for a cold cerveza at Crazy Joe’s Hostal and see what, if anything, was
under the boulder. He should have left well enough alone.
The following morning, after extended efforts and calls to a nearby village
for reinforcements, they finally got the boulder to roll. Sure enough,
underneath was a final skeleton. Number 5 was clearly different from the
others. For one, Jack could tell it was of a fairly old man, at least
in his 50s, at a time when most people died by 30. All of the other
skeletons appeared to be children or young adults. For another, the
bones, when laid out, indicated a man about six feet tall, which was gigantic
for that race at that time.
Didn’t Jack watch any Boris Karloff movies as a kid, we asked him later.
It should have been obvious that somebody had wanted Number 5 to stay firmly
in place under that boulder, and that moving him was NOT a very good idea.
But Jack was pretty much a classic scientist, and did’t believe in ghosts.
Not at that point, at any rate.
What followed was a real-life horror story which rivals anything we have
read by Poe or King, in content at least, and if we have refrained from
recounting it or writing it down before now it was out of fear of not being able to do justice to its
sheer horror and realness. How could we ever get our readers to realize that
this actually happened, and caused a number of very sane and rational doctors and scientists to seriously question their beliefs if not their sanity? But it
Misfortune, mysteriously moving objects, accidents, apparitions, damning
coincidences and even several deaths were to appear in the wake of the
remains of Number 5 over the following
few months. It
became clear that something very ugly and dangerous had been brought back
up to the light of day when they rolled that boulder.
Eventually Jack came around to the realization that the only way to put the evil
genie back in the bottle was to take what was left of Number 5 back to
the dig and re-insert him in the same
hole he came out of,
with some kind of local shaman throwing a few spells in there to make sure
he stayed where he belonged. Just as soon as Jack got him back from the
laboratory at the Polytechnic Institute in the capital, where he had taken
all five skeletons
for X-ray analysis by a group of forensic anthropologists, the only lab in
the country with the equipment to do the job.
Unfortunately, several of the workers at the Polytechnic lab, including
the lady doctor who actually examined Number 5, met untimely ends just
time, and when Jack went back for the results and the skeletons,
guess what? No one seemed able to find Number 5. Gone, vanished, out and
about? Who knows?
Jesus, it gives us the creeps just remembering this story. We are
literally sitting here shivering and sweating as the memories come flooding
back. A good time for a stiff drink, and we hate alcohol. Perhaps someday we will be able to write down all the truly horrifying
details of this bad trip, but quite frankly 20 years is not enough
distance to feel completely at ease. After all, Number 5 might be
a regular reader of the Dowbrigade News.