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Public access preserves ruins

Priceless cultural remains from a magnificent though mysterious period in the history of the Aymara people have been saved from looters and the ravages of time in the highlands of Bolivia, thanks to a new road.

The preservation work was carried out at 15 sites in the areas of Warijana and Pujrata in the Andean altiplano, as part of an IDB-financed project to construct the Patacamaya-Tambo Quemado highway, which links Bolivia with Chile.

Anthropologists with the "Amaya Uta" project identified 44 tombs, carried out conservation work on six, and then sent 21 containers of human and cultural remains to La Paz for analysis and eventual exhibition at the National Museum of Anthropology.

The tombs, which date back to the period following the fall of the Tiawanaco Empire, or after 1200 AD, consist of clay towers called ch'ullpares. The corpses contained inside were mummified through a process of evisceration and abdominal filling, and then placed in straw baskets, which promoted dehydration and impeded later rehydration.

Before burial, the bodies were decked out in sumptuous clothes, decorated with the feathers of exotic birds and jewelry made of precious metals, indicating either contact with, or dominion over, the Amazonian lowlands.

Radiographic studies of the mummies indicate that the people were well nourished. And to make sure that they would not suffer from hunger or thirst in the hereafter, the deceased were provided with clay pots containing corn, potatoes, quinoa (an Andean grain) and chicha (a traditional drink).

A large percentage of the skulls showed deliberate deformation during infancy, a symbol of social class. One skull had evidence of a double trepanation in which both perforations showed signs of bone regrowth, proof that the person survived two operations carried out by obviously skilled surgeons.

The burial towers, despite being made of mere mud and straw, have survived nearly 1,000 years of fierce winds, baking sun, freezing temperatures and torrential rains. By protecting the mummies, they preserved an enigmatic link to a magnificent past.

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