A group of researchers from several universities in the United States and one in Canada have characterised a large number of red pigment samples discovered on the bones of ancient people who once lived in what is now southern Peru. The group describes their pigment research in a paper published in the Journal of Anthropological Archaeology.
Prior research on the use of red pigments in funeral rites by ancient Peruvians suggests the practise is related to extending the life of the dead. In this new study, the researchers used a variety of techniques to analyse red pigments found on the bones of Chincha people. These people lived in Peru from 1000 AD to 1825 AD. The pigments were discovered on bones recovered from more than 100 chullpas, or mass burial sites. The investigation sought to ascertain why and how the bones were painted.
To find out, the researchers used laser ablation, X-ray fluorescence spectrometry and X-ray powder diffraction on 35 bones. They wanted to identify all of the pigment components. They discovered that the majority of them were made with iron-based ochres like hematite. Another important material discovered was cinnabar, which had a mercury base.
They also discovered that cinnabar was not indigenous to the area and had to be imported. This indicated that it was most likely intended for important or wealthy people. The researchers also noted that, while there were some bones from women and children, the majority were from adult males.
The arrangement of the pigments on the bones indicates that it was applied with either leaves or bare fingers. The arrangement of the bones in the chullpas also suggested that the pigments were applied long after the people had been skeletonized. This indicates that people at the time exhumed loved ones and painted their bones to protect them from European invaders.
More information: Jacob L. Bongers et al, Painting personhood: Red pigment practices in southern Peru, Journal of Anthropological Archaeology (2022). DOI: 10.1016/j.jaa.2022.101480