The Mummies of Sucre

This is a not-so-flattering portrait of what is affectionately named Momia 2, one of a six mummies on display in the anthropological section of the Museo Universitario Charcas in Sucre, Bolivia. She was 25 when she died, 1.46m (57in) tall and overweight. A coroner would have probably ruled her death as accidental.

As with most pre-Incan mummies in the Andes, the process that preserved enough information to determine all of that was not intentional. She, like most of her companions at the museum, was from the Mojocoya culture from nearby Zudanez province, a group that interred their dead in caves and rock shelters. There, conditions sometime allowed for natural mummification, the start of a process that eventually landed Momia 2 in a comfortable glass box in this sprawling 17th century mansion just a couple blocks south of Sucre’s central Plaza 25 de Mayo.

Charcas, operated by the University of Saint Francis Xavier, the second oldest institution of higher learning in the Americas, is actually four museums in one, housing the university’s anthropological, archaeological, colonial and contemporary art collections. Photography was not allowed in the art sections, so I’ll focus here on the archaeology, more specifically the five mummies I decided were wildly photogenic. But don’t skip the art galleries which includes this amazing bird’s-eye portrait of Potosi by Gaspar Miguel de Berrio and works of several notable contemporary locals.

So, how old are they?

[Update 14 Jan 2014]: Ignore the rant below; Dan and Brigid from the blog Sucre Life visited the museum today and report that the mummies date from 700 to 800 AD. Many thanks!

I don’t know, which forces me to open this with a mini-rant.

Oddly, no dates were provided in the descriptions accompanying the mummy’s glass enclosures. Only one time reference appeared anywhere; it was said that Momia 3, below, dated from 100 to 1200 AD. I thought they could do better than that.

The only person in that section of the museum, a security officer, was of no help. Neither was the web. In fact, searching for more information became a frustrating illustration of the deficiencies that still exist online, at least in relation to Bolivian archaeology. The university does have a website for the museum but a coding error makes sure that any pertinent information is kept from you. I’d write them to let them know but I couldn’t locate a contact link. [And a related aside: besides a few single-word references, I couldn’t find anything online that provided more insight into the Mojocoya culture, not through English or basic Spanish language searches. Any assistance will be greatly appreciated.]

OK, enough. Let’s become better acquainted with the rest of the mummies.

Meet Momia 1, a healthy woman who lived into her mid-50s before she died of natural causes. Also a Mojocoya, she was from Naunaca, about 210km northeast of Sucre.

By contrast, evidence suggests that Momia 3, below, suffered from severe malnutrition before she died between the ages of three and five.

sucre-mummy03

In the museum, two and three are displayed together. No, they were not related, but it’s a nice touch, no?

We continue with Momia 4 (below) another child, a boy who died between eight and 10. Signs of trauma suggest he died accidentally.

And finally, Momia 5, one that’s somewhat of a mystery. Just 10 months old at death, sex and cause of death remain uncertain.

sucre-mummy05-IMG_9434

 

***

Museos Charcas
One block east of the Iglesia de la Merced at the corner of Dalence and Bolivar.
Mon-Fri 8:30-noon, 14:30-18:00; Sat 9:00-noon, 15:00-18:00. Admission 20 Bs (USD 2.89, EUR 2.19)

 

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  1. alcessa says

    This German diss claims the Mojocoya culture existed between 200 BC and 500 AD … (page 94, chart 4.1) At least in the Omereque Valley, wherever that is 🙂 And that’s about all there is to be found in the German part of the internet … ? (apart from Jutta: http://jutta-bernd-auf-reisen.blogspot.de/2009/12/abschied-vom-hochland-und-auf-den.html)

    1. BobR says

      Thanks so much, really appreciate that.

      This is odd. Could the Mojocoya really be so obscure that so little exists on the interwebs? Or is it all still in books in Andean university libraries?

      1. alcessa says

        It really is odd :-), quite a secret it would seem!

        I also googled “südamerikansche Mumien” after that and I found more useful sites about South American mummies in general (some of them are thousands of years older than the Egyptian ones, wow 🙂 ) but Mojocoyas were not expressly mentioned (I just scanned a few of them and didn’t search very diligently). Also, most sites seem to concentrate on Peru.

        1. BobR says

          Thanks again. I’m not giving up on this yet. 🙂 I just made contact with someone in Sucre, so hoping they’ll be able to help.

  2. alcessa says

    Wow 🙂 (I really like stories like this so I am keeping my fingers crossed for new information)

    1. BobR says

      Mystery solved. 🙂 Just learned that they date from 700 to 800 AD.

      1. alcessa says

        Oh, they are sort of “young”, no? 🙂

        1. BobR says

          Younger than they look.

  3. artslawyer says

    Fantastic!

  4. Susan at Resale Evangelista says

    While the photograph is compelling, I’m offended by the subject matter. Do you think this person would choose to have his/her remains displayed–either in a museum or on the internet? Would you?

    1. BobR says

      Me personally? I won’t care because I won’t be around. 🙂 But I do understand your larger point and the ethical debate about exhibiting human remains. I’m on the side which believes that much can be learned about what came before us and where we came from.

  5. Sam @ Travelling King says

    Cool! Kinda creepy but very cool!
    I have always been a little fascinated by the mummy process, its surprising how old these guys are and how very well preserved they are!

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  7. Siobhan says

    These pictures are incredible. It is unbelievable how well preserved these mummies are. It is easy to imagine how they looked when they were alive

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