What’s the last thing you’d expect to find in an ancient Peruvian pyramid? If you said “three-fingered aliens,” you’re in the right country but the wrong site. Archeologists examining the Bellavista adobe pyramid in Lima, which dates back to 1100 CE, found human remains that were identified as Chinese. Even more mysterious, the 16 skeletons appear to have been placed there in the late 1800s. How could this have happened?
Before we dig into this pyramid mystery, let’s look at the Peruvian pyramids themselves. The native word for these adobe structures is ‘huaca’ and they’re found everywhere in Peru from the jungle to the capital city of Lima, which has plenty of them. They were built by many of the pre-Colombian cultures in the area, primarily as religious or cultural centers, and were used as tombs for the elite members of the society. The huacas were used until the Europeans arrived, when they were either destroyed or abandoned after being designated as ‘pagan’ symbols. Fortunately, the Peruvian Ministry of Culture and particularly the government of Lima are working to preserve the remaining huacas, sometimes by just fencing them but also by excavating and preserving their contents to be studied.
That brings us to the pyramid or huaca in the Bellavista district of Peru. According to Roxana Gomez, the lead archaeologist there, this huaca, along with at least 15 others, belonged to the Ichma culture which inhabited the area from 1000 to around 1400 when it was absorbed by the Incas. At no time does history show any contact between the Ichma and China. So the announcement this week by the Ministry of Culture that 16 Chinese skeletons were found there is shocking, but not for the reasons you might think.
Peru, along with many other South American countries, made heavy use of slave labor until the practice was abolished in 1854. As in North America, it was often replaced by indentured servitude. Peruvian cotton farmers ‘hired’ Chinese laborers up until the 20th century when they were replaced by machinery. It should come as no surprise that a country so dependent on slaves and migrant workers would not let them be buried in Catholic cemeteries. So it appears that the Chinese, knowing the religious purpose of the abandoned huacas, used them for their own burials.
“In one Chinese coffin, an opium pipe and a small ceramic vessel were included in the funerary ensemble.”
As reported by the Peru News Agency, Gomez found that 11 of the corpses were buried in shrouds but the five buried later were in wooden coffins with finer clothing and accessories. While they still weren’t allowed in Peruvian cemeteries, this is an indication that the Chinese were still able to move up in stature in the Peruvian society that still discriminated against them.
Will more Chinese skeletons be found buried in Peruvian pyramids? Let’s hope so. They’ll help teach a lesson that humans still don’t seem to have learned.