Death without Weeping: Maternal Bonds towards Deceased Offspring among Non-Human Primates

Nonhuman primate mothers do not weep in response to death of their infants. When a non-human primate mother has her offspring, she has already invested considerably time as well as physical and metabolic energy to gestation and birth of the infant. Death of an infant, therefore, is detrimental to the mother who already invested in her offspring, as well as the group’s genetic continuity. Whether or not the death of non-human primate mother’s offspring elicits an emotional or affectionate response is more difficult to identify.


Primatologists have long acknowledged the importance of death of a primate for calculations of demographic trends and constructing life tables (Altman and Altman, 1970). Studies of behavioral responses to death among rhesus macaques include elevated grooming levels between group members, possibly to counteract the loss of a group member. The living also engaged with the deceased by grooming, inspection, as well as aggression towards the corpse (Buhl et al., 2012). Female hamadryas baboons show increase in stress hormone levels after the death of a conspecific (Engh et al., 2006). Studies of chimpanzees group responses to pre- and post-death care of members of their cohort indicate that behaviors typically include close inspection and tests for signs of life at the moment of death, male aggression towards the corpse, all-night attendance by family members, cleaning of the corpse, and even avoidance of the place where death occurred (see Goodall, 1977, Anderson et al., 2010, and Biro et al., 2010).

Whether or not there exists a general trend of maternal responses to primate death remains poorly understood. The mother-offspring bond is considered to be one of the longest and most essential social bonds among mammals (Cronin et al., 2011). The maternal reposes associated with the permanent, premature disruption of this social bond—the death of the offspring—has rarely been investigated (Cronin et al., 2011). Early primatological studies documented male responses to dead infants among semi-free-ranging Barbary macaques (Merz, 1978). A long-term study of wild geladas from Ethiopia recorded 14 cases of dead infants being carried by females was the first attempt to explore responses to death in non-human primates, focusing on allomaternal-like behavior towards dead infant (Fashing et al., 2010). Primate death and behavioral responses from group members have also been documented from several sites, including the Gombe, Tai Forest, and safari park in Scotland (Teleki, 1973; Boesch and Boesch-Achermann, 2000; Anderson, 2011, respectively).

Primatological studies have documented instances when mothers continue to handle the corpses of their infants. Given this prolonged interaction, I wonder, does maternal attachment continues after the death of her offspring? If so, what triggers this particular behavior?


Before I examine the behavioral responses to infant death, it is important to briefly describe what is considered “normal” mother-infant behavior among primate. Mothers and their infants represent a central focus of interest for other females in the group among species and groups of social primates (e.g. Hrdy 1976; Seyfarth 1976; Altmann 1980; Nicolson 1987; Maestripieri 1994a). Females visibly show their interest in interacting with newborn infants. When new infants are present in a group, subadult and nulliparous females approach the mothers and attempt to sniff, investigate, and pick up the young infants (Nicolson 1987). Females also have been observed grooming the mother in exchange for handling her new infant (Altmann, 1980, O’Brien & Robinson, 1991, Muroyama, 1994, Di Bitetti, 1997, Silk, 1999).

While female attraction to infants represents a common feature of primate species, maternal response to infant handling shows a certain degree of variability (Nicolson 1987; Maestripieri 1994b). Maternal responses to infant death have been attributed to several ecological and circumstantial explanations as well as several hypotheses in the primatological literature:

  • Unawareness of Death Hypothesis (Hrdy, 1999)
  • The Decomposition Hypothesis (Fashing et al., 2011)
  • Post-Parturient Condition Hypothesis (Kaplan, 1973; Biro et al., 2010)
  • “Learning to Mother” Hypothesis for Learning about Death (Warren and Williamson, 2004

Unawareness of Death Hypothesis

Extended carrying of a dead infant may indicate that the mother is unaware that her infant is no longer alive. According to the hypothesis, primate mothers of recently dead infants continue interacting with her infant exhibiting behaviors typical of new mothers, such as grooming and licking. For example, Kaplan (1972) recorded responses of captive female squirrel monkeys that were presented with the corpses of their dead infants. The infants had been dead for approximately two weeks. The mothers seemed unaware that their infant was no longer living, yet attempted to retrieve the corpse by lifting it or administer vocalizations regardless (Kaplan, 1972). However, these experiments do not simulate a situation that would occur in the squirrel monkeys’ natural environment. The mother’s infant was immediately retrieved after its death, which denied the mothers an opportunity to interact with her infant post-mortem.

Contrary to the hypothesis, there are examples of maternal behavior that shows the mother continues handling her infant while also exhibiting behaviors indicating that she is fully aware that her infant is no longer alive. A white-faced capuchin mother continued to groom and lick the body while trying to repel carnivorous insects from the corpse. She also allowed her dead infant to be fully submerged in water while she drank. Once she finished, she retrieved the corpse, and continued to transport her dead infant for several days (Perry and Manson, 2008). Similarly, chimpanzee mothers from Bossou, Guinea, appear to be aware that the bodies of the infants they carried were inanimate, and adopted carrying techniques not normally used with healthy juveniles (Biro et al., 2010).


It is possible that uniparious mothers are unable to differentiation between living and non-living offspring due to a lack of experience. Studies have shown, however, that number of living offspring does not necessarily contribute to the duration for which in infant corpse is handled. Two multiparious snub-nosed monkey mothers carried and handled their dead infants for 4 days and one month. The mothers had had infants previously, and therefore could differentiate between normal, responsive infant behavior and abnormal, unresponsive infant behavior (Li et al., 2012). Similarly, multiparious chimpanzees mothers have been documented carrying their infant’s corpses for longer compared to the chimpanzee mothers carrying the corpse of their first and only offspring (Biro et al., 2010). Warren and Williamson (2004) also noted that two multiparious gorilla females also continued to handle their infants long after their death. Whether or not a primate mother is nulliparious or multiparious does not appear to influence how long she continues to interact with the corpse of her infant.

Overall, it appears that the unawareness of death hypothesis does not adequately explain the mechanism of maternal behaviors towards dead offspring. Continued handling of her infant does not necessarily suggest that she is unaware that her infant is not longer living; rather, the mother may be prolonging the separate from her infant for another reason.

The Decomposition Hypothesis

According to the decomposition hypothesis, any long-term carrying of the infant by the mother does not represent a sense of loss or attachment to the infant. Rather, mothers are unaware of the infant’s death and continue to carry the corpse until clear signals of decomposition (e.g. particular odor cues) indicate death (Fashing et al., 2010). Extreme climate conditions (such as cold or hot arid weather) slow the natural rate of decomposition of deceased bodies (Haglund and Sorg, 1997). Prolonged carrying (defined as longer than 10 days) of an infant corpse appears to be more likely in extreme climatic conditions, particularly in cold or hot arid weather, that naturally slows decomposition of infant body (Fashing et al., 2010).

Several studies of primates living in extreme climate conditions have supported the decomposition hypothesis. Gelada monkeys (Theropithecus gelada) of Guassa, Ethiopia, live in an extreme climatic condition that favors a slower rate of decomposition of dead individuals. Over a 3.75 year-long study period, 14 mothers carried and handled their mummified infants for 10 or more days. Extended carrying of dead infants has been documented among mountain gorillas that inhabit unusually cold environments (Fashing et al., 2010b, Nakagawa et al., 2010, Vedder, 1984) and chimpanzees living in extremely arid regions with a long dry season of Bossou, Guinea (Biro et al., 2010, Matsuzawa 1997).


The decomposition hypothesis is based on another assumption that New World primates in tropical environments appear only to carry or care for dead infants rarely or for only a short period of time. For example, a tufted capuchin mother was reported to carry her dead infant for less than 24 hours after an infanticide attack (Izar et al., 2007). This behavior, however, may be due to the social dynamics of infanticide, rather than the maternal indifference towards her dead infant.

Despite the climatic circumstances that delay decomposition, primates have been documented to carry infants for a long enough period that the body does eventually decay. In this case, signs of decomposition, such as putrefaction and change in the infant’s appearance (e.g. loss of fur and limbs) do not repel mother and, in some cases, other kin and non-kin. For example, Bossou chimpanzee mothers as well as related and unrelated individuals from all age groups of both sexes attempted to handle, lift and drop limbs, and sniff the bodies of three dead infants. Juvenile and infants were even allowed to carry the bodies of infants some distance from the mother in bouts of play. Biro and colleagues (2010) state that they never observed a response that could be interpreted as aversion, despite the bodies’ intense smell of decay and usual appearance of mummified skin and missing fur.

Similarly, four female mountain gorilla continued to carry their dead offspring even when the corpses lost their hair and heads, and despite the pervasive smell of decaying flesh (Warren and Williamson, 2004). Observations made by Rumbaugh (1965) of captive squirrel monkeys in San Diego, California, noted that a mother continued to handle her infant for six weeks as the corpse began to putrefy. Over a 24-year study period of Japanese macaques, a total of 157 mothers continued to carry their dead infants between 1 to 17 days despite the quick progression of the decomposition, and the putrid smell and swarm of flies surrounding the dead infant and the mother (Sugiyama et al., 2009). In this case, however, non-kin avoided the mother and her dead infant, seemingly due to the smell, and she received less social grooming that before their infants had died (Sugiyame et al., 2009). Sugiyama and colleagues (2009) state that they cannot determine why mothers continue to carry the corpses given its bad state of decomposition. It is apparent, however, that mothers do not necessarily abandon their offspring due to aversion.

It is possible that “caretaking” behaviors rather than the environmental setting facilitates mummification. In the study conducted by Biro and colleagues (2010) in Bossou, Guinea, three chimpanzee mothers continued to carry the mummified corpses of their infants for 19, 27, and 68 days following their death, exhibiting extensive care of the body by grooming it regularly, sharing her day and night nests with it, and showing distress whenever they became separated. The mothers also chased away flies that circled the corpses, twice with the aid of a tool (Biro et al., 2010).

In sum, the decomposition hypothesis has several flaws. Infant handling is not limited to primates living in unusually arid, cold regions. In fact, mothers continue to handle their dead infants even though the corpses admit olfactory and visual signs of putrefaction and decomposition. Overall, it seems that the foul odor of decomposing flesh does not appear to deter mothers from transporting and manipulating corpses. Oftentimes, this “care-taking” behavior seems to (unintentionally?) preserve the offspring. Yet, this treatment towards dead infants will be explored in the post-parturient condition hypothesis.

Post-Parturient Condition Hypothesis

Post-parturient condition hypothesis proposes that postpartum hormones influence maternal behaviors toward dead infants. Physical characteristics and particular hormones are essential for the onset and maintenance of infant-carrying behavior and the development of the mother–infant bond towards living infants (Kaplan 1973; Biro et al. 2010). Neuroendocrine mechanisms and physical characteristics of the infant (such as natal attractiveness) stimulate and regulate motherly behavior to care for and protect her offspring (see Maestripieri, 2001, 1991). At birth, an infant’s attractiveness includes size at birth, vocalizations made by the infant (e.g. “purring” noises), infantile facial expressions, distinguishing morphological features such as bug ears or tail tufts, and distinctive coat color (Hrdy, 1976).


Human, non-human primate, and non-primate mammal studies demonstrate that there are endocrine influences on mother-infant interactions and the formation of bond post-partum (Maestripieri, 1999). In non-primate mammals, pregnancy and lactation hormones enhance maternal responsiveness and behavior although they are not strictly necessary for their onset or maintenance (Stern, 1989). In New World monkeys such as red-bellied tamarins (Saguinus labiatus) and common marmosets (Callithrix jacchus), there is evidence that hormones influence both responsiveness to young during pregnancy and quality of maternal care during lactation (Pryce et al., 1993). Studies of group-living pigtail macaque females show that the females increased their rate of interaction with infants during the final weeks of pregnancy that corresponded with an increase in plasma levels of estradiol and progesterone (Maestripieri and Wallen, 1995; Maestripieri and Zehr, 1998). Fleming and colleagues (1997) showed that human mothers who maintained high levels of estradiol over the parturitional period also had higher feelings of attachment to their own infant in the early postpartum days than mothers whose estradiol levels dropped. Thus, these studies indicate that primate and human parenting is partially influenced by physiological variables.

The continued interaction and gradual separation between the mother and infants’ bodies appears to also be a by-product of hormonal condition of pregnancy and the formation of the mother-infant bond in post-parturient female primates. Behavioral studies note that mothers do not simply abandon the corpse of her dead infant. Rather, the mother continues to interact with the corpse, gradually separate herself physically from the body of her dead offspring.

There are several physiological characteristics that may be observed in female primates that indicate that hormone levels are fluctuating and therefore influencing her behavior. Postpartum amenorrhea in chimpanzees lasts around four years, but is shortened with the death of an infant (Wallis, 1997). The infant could no longer breastfeed and lactation ceased, triggering the mothers’ reproductive cycle to return.

To date, there are no studies that directly link changes in hormones during the mother’s transition from handling her infant until the moment she abandons its. Therefore, the post-parturient condition hypothesis relies on behavioral studies. Several behavioral studies report that mothers gradually separate herself from the corpse of her infant. For example, gelada monkey mothers also experience a graduate separation that includes a transition from only the mother handling the infant corpse, and then allowing other group members to handle to deceased juvenile (Fashing et al., 2010).

The post-parturient condition is best illustrated by observations conducted at Chimfunshi Wildlife Orphanage Trust, a chimpanzee sanctuary in Northwest Zambia (Cronin et al., 2010). Shortly after the death of her infant, the mother transitioned from maintaining close, constant proximity to the dead body to creating physical distance from the deceased infant (Cronin et al., 2010). She maintained visual contact with the body when not in immediate proximity to it. As time passes, mothers transition to lessening her contact with the body and allowing others to inspect the body (Biro et al., 2010; Hosaka et al., 2000). Other studies have also reported that chimpanzee mothers gradually transition from extreme attachment to the body of their dead infants immediately following death to weakened attachment to the body as time passes (Hosaka et al., 2000, Biro et al., 2010).

Ring-talked lemur (Lemu catta) mothers have been reported to continue to return to their dead infants several times for several hours after the infant’s death. Every time each female returned to the body, she would sniff, lick, and touch the infant (Nakamichi et al., 1996). Despite the increasing distance between the troop and the deceased infant, the mothers continued to return to her dead infant, even when the troop have moved 400 meters away from the corpse (Nakamichi et al., 1996). Six of the seven mothers attempted to lift the corpses, and one mother clumsily carried the corpse 15 meters and attempted to jump into a tree. Mothers were unable to maintain proximity between both the troop and the corpse concurrently because she was not able to carry her dead offspring (Nakamichi et al., 1996).

The post-parturient hypothesis appears to most adequately examine the mechanism of maternal handling and carrying of deceased infant remains. Carrying and handling a corpse after death expresses a strong attachment, and the gradual separation of mother from her dead infant are behavioral responses to hormonal changes. Whether or not death of an infant elicits a psychological or emotion response is difficult, possibly impossible to identify. To compliment the hormonal-centric tenants of the post-parturient hypothesis, I will explore literature that contemplates whether or not the prolonged carrying and handling of corpses is part of process in which primates “learn” about death.

“Learning to Mother” Hypothesis for Learning about Death

Studies of maternal responses to death among apes provide additional information investigating whether or not the extended interaction with infant corpses is a period during which primates engage in a learning process. The “learning to mother” hypothesis was first proposed by Hrdy (1976) to explain why female young and non-mothers interact so frequently with offspring. Warren and Williamson (2004) adapt this hypothesis to a population of mountain gorillas to illustrate that the prolonged handling of dead infants is a type of social learning for mothers, young, and non-mothers to acquaint themselves with cues typical of death.

Ateles geoffroyi vellerosus Spider Monkey Central America mother and baby

Primatologists have investigated the long-term benefits of young and non-mothers carrying living infants. The handling of live infants by non- mothers has been referred to as aunting, baby-sitting, kidnapping, play-mothering, allomaternal behavior, or allomothering (Hrdy, 1976; Maestripieri, 1994a, 1994b). According to the ‘‘learning to mother’’ hypothesis, young or nulliparous females who handle infants gain maternal experience, and recalling these skills later in life, making them more capable of raising their own offspring (Hrdy, 1976).

The benefits of “learning to mother,” could be gained with a corpse, since the motor skills required to carry an infant while traveling and foraging could still be acquired (Warren and Williamson, 2004). Furthermore, the extending carrying behavior by the mothers, as well as related and unrelated individuals, may be an example of observational learning that promotes prolonged transport of deceased young (Biro et al., 2010). These interactions with a corpse could be part of a process in which the primate learns to recognize death.

Observations of mountain gorillas at Karisoke Research Center, Rwanda, noted that two nullparious mothers in their final months of pregnancy, and two mothers who had recently lost offspring all handled and transported the mothers’ two dead infants (Warren and Williamson, 2004). As previously discussed, the hormonal disposition of the mother may contribute to the continued handle of her infant after death. The hormonal state of pregnant females similarly predisposes her to interact more frequently with infants, even ones that are recently dead. It seems it may be both an innate change in her physiology as well as an opportunity to practice handling infants.

Similarly, Cronin and colleagues (2010) suggest that chimpanzees handle and examine the body of deceased infants in order to recognize cues of a corpse and therefore “learn” about death. Studies conducted at Chimfunshi Wildlife Orphanage Trust, a chimpanzee sanctuary in Northwest Zambia, recorded that one chimpanzee mother touched the body and face of her dead infant, presumably an action that would have provided olfactory and gustatory information about the infant’s condition (Cronin et al., 2010). Every time she returned to the infant’s corpse, she would closely inspected its face and neck. Cronin and colleagues (2010) suggest that close inspection of the face could serve as the best location to assess the condition of the infant. No changes in eye gaze, breathing, or facial musculature could inform the mother that the infant’s condition had irreversible changed (Cronin et al., 2010). The mother was actively gathering novel sensory information about the dead infant, possibly remembering this information for the next time she encountered the same set of cues. In other words, the mother may have been “learning about death.” (Cronin et al., 2010: 420).

Whether or not prolonged handling of infants is indicative of a “cultural” behavior towards death that is passed on throughout the group and through generations may be impossible to prove. Yet, some researchers suggest that the transmission of knowledge for handling of dead infants that occurs throughout multiple generations and occurs among multiple members of a group may indicate that this learning and knowledge may be transferred (see Cronin et al., 2010; Warren and Williamson, 2004; and Biro et al., 2010). For example, three chimpanzee mothers at Bossou, Guinea, all had infants that died during the study period and all exhibited a similar manner of prolonged handling of dead infants. Biro and colleagues (2010) suggest that the similarities in treatments and behaviors may not be a rare occurrence in this particular community. In fact, the prolonged handling may part of the culture of that particular group. In sum, the learning to mother hypothesis provides an intriguing framework in which primatologists may explore prolonged infant handling among the great apes.

Mother-Infant Bonds and Learning to Grieve?

Overall, it appears there is continued attraction and care towards dead infants occurs to some extent in all major taxaonomic groups (Anderson, 2011). Both the decomposition and unawareness of death hypotheses seem insufficient to explain why primate mothers continue to handle the corpses of offspring after death. Contrary to the unawareness of death hypothesis, primate mothers appear to handle their infants in ways that suggest they are aware that their offspring is no longer living. Similarly, primate mothers continue to handle their dead infants regardless of the environmental setting (arid verses humid) and despite putrefaction and decomposition of the corpse.

The post-parturient condition hypothesis, on the other hand, considers both the behavioral and hormonal responses of primate mothers across primate taxa. The formation of the strong mother-infant bond at birth does not simply disappear once the infant dies; rather, it seems that the mother transitions from physiological conditions typical of motherhood (e.g. cessation of lactation amenorrhea) is concurrent with the mother’s gradual separation from and abandonment of her deceased infant.


It is particularly interesting that mothers slowly allow conspecifics to handle the corpse, and that recognition of particular cues that signal death may illustrate that young and non-mothers are “learning” to recognize death. Whether or not the handling of dead infants should be considered cultural learning is difficult and potentially impossible to identify. Given that multiple mothers of a particular group of chimpanzees and gorillas all exhibited similar behaviors in response to the death of their infant indicates that the behavior may be contributed to both physiological and social influences.

Studies of primate death are greatly biased towards chimpanzees, but long-term and behavioral studies of gorillas, baboons, and new world monkeys are also becoming more common. Overall, primate behavioral and hormonal studies indicate that continued handling and interaction with infant corpses signifies a connection between the mother and her offspring, even if the offspring has died.


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Mummies, Saints, and Religion in the Andes

Andean peoples have a long history of incorporating new practices into their worldview. Just as the Inka institutionalized ritual life during the Late Intermediate Period (1000-1450 AD), Andean people were able to incorporate the rituals of Catholicism into their own religious framework after the Spanish conquest. In Catholicism, the body—be it the body of a deceased Christian, a saint, or the body of Christ—was used to convey meanings about life, death, and the promise of an ideal afterlife in exchange for devout living. Similarly, the body had an equally ritualistic role among the Andean people as ancestral mummies were consulted on matters of life and venerated long after death. In other words, the body in its preserved, mummified form had similar roles in Catholicism and Andean religion. The he fusing together two separate ideologies (Andean beliefs and Catholicism), or syncretism, may have been partly due to the importance the Andean people placed on mummified bodies. What are the similar ways  Andean people and Catholics from Europe perceived the body?

The body is not simply a biological entity, but is a carefully crafted artifact that continues to be worked and transformed after death. In death, the body transforms into a form of material culture created and maintained through social practices, historical circumstances, and other social forces (Sofaer, 2006). The body is used to convey representations of death and the afterlife, of a society´s boundaries, of the nature of humanness, and of the ordering of the social world. The treatment of the corpse embodies complex concepts about the living body (what it is to be human, how to follow codes of conduct) and society at large (how the social order is represented but also about the nature of death) (Pearson, 2008).

The dead, mummies in particular, were seen as an active group in the Andean world. One of the best-known techniques of transforming and utilizing the corpse is by means of its transformation into a mummy. Such bodies retained what Tung (2014) refers to as “post-mortem agency” in which the bodies, even in their altered, mummified state, remain politically and social active in death. These bodies are the culmination of rituals that serve to separate the dead from the living and install them within another dimension of human understanding (Pearson, 2008). Interestingly, the perceptions of the mummified body were similar between Catholics and Andean people, and, as I argue, allowed for the syncretism of Catholicism and Andean religion.

Mummification and Ancestor Veneration in Andean Religion

The Andean peoples had long venerated their ancestors and the mummified the remains of their most important relatives (mallquis), but the Inka institutionalized this process of ancestor worship by creating a system of religious corporations (panacas) to honor deceased rulers (Andrian, 2001). Theses practices continued through the Inka period and desiccation of the body continued to be the most notable funerary practice throughout the Andes at Spanish contact (Rakita and Buikstra, 2005).

After death, the living exerted great effort to embalm the body of the Inka emperor in a manner that preserved his appearance and likeness as in life (Cobo, 1990 [1653]; Cieza de León (1959 [1553]). The mummified Inka emperors were wrapped in large amounts of cotton and dressed in rich clothing and were enshrined in golden thrones in the Temple del Sol (Korikancha) in Cusco (Dillehay, 1991), or in their own homes where kin could provide attention and care for their bodies (Rowe, 1995). Cobo (1653, 1990) notes that some bodies over 200 years old were still found in Cusco and were so well preserved that the skin and hair were still intact, as if the individual had died less than a month before!

A portion of the gold and silver the deceased had accumulated in his lifetime were placed with the body while other sumptuary goods were buried elsewhere, specifically in places where the deceased usually went to enjoy himself during his life (Cobo, 1990 [1653]). A separate set of priests made offerings to the mummies of deceased Inkas and other prominent figures, providing ritual meals of chicha and other foodstuff, surrounding them with utensils used in life (such as textiles, hoes, and weapons), and including them to community religious celebrations (Cobo, 1990 [1653]); Cieza de León, 1959 [1553]).

From Felipe Guaman Poma de Ayala: El primer nueva corónica y buen gobierno

The body of the dead Inka emperor was dried and preserved above ground, guarded by attendants, and treated as if the ruler were still alive (Dillehay, 1995). The body itself preserved the memory of the dead ruler, and his descendants recited his deeds on public occasions. The mummified Inka rulers participated in public affairs, were brought to temples and houses to carry out functions that, in all appearances, were of a political character. For example, they were regularly borne on litters during the most important ceremonies that took place in Cusco’s plaza and often consulted on important matters (Pizarro, 1978 [1571]).

The palaces and other residences of a deceased ruler were not inherited by his successors; rather, the dead physically and symbolically were still believed to occupy their residences and palaces even in death. These residences served as monumental reminders of the ruler (Rowe, 1995). In other words, the deceased Inka ruler continued to physically and symbolically participate in society; he did not and could not wholly die.

Are there any similarities between the bodies of the Inka and Catholic bodies?

Incorruptible Catholic Bodies

The Roman Catholic Church has long practiced mummification to preserve the bodies of saints, priests, bishops, and other high-ranking church members. The bodies are named “incorruptible” because the bodies are believed to have preserved miraculously and are immune to decay (Jeremiah, 2012; Chamberlain and Pearson, 2001). The spontaneous preservation was believed to be evidence of the sanctity of the individual (Jeremiah, 2012; Chamberlain and Pearson, 2001); an individual believed to be pure and lived what is considered an “uncorrupted” life. While many of the so-called incorruptible bodies have been deemed as forgeries, the perception of the incorruptible nature of the bodies continues in the Catholic mindset (Jeremiah, 2012).

The display of these incorruptible bodies belonging to saints, priests, bishops, and other high-ranking individuals in the Catholic Church serves several purposes. Displaying bodies of the deceased functions as a constant reminder of the inevitability of death to encourage followers of the Catholic faith to live devout lives. Also, bodies belonging to divine individuals are believed to be immediate sources of supernatural power for good or for ill, and close contact with them or possession of them was a means of participating in that power (Geary, 1986: 176). Beginning in the 11th century and into the present, whole and partial bodies of saints were prized for their thaumaturgic power, particularly “their ability to substitute for public authority, protest and secure the community, determine the relative status of individuals and churches, and provide for the community´s economic prosperity” (Geary, 1986: 179). In sum, mummified bodies served religious as well as social, economic, and political purposes ultimately to legitimate the authority of the Roman Catholic Church.

Mummied head believed to belong to St. Catherine of Siena, Basilica Cateriniana San Domenico, Siena, Italy

Spanish Conquest and Dismantlement of Ancestor Veneration

The Spanish justified their conquest of Tawantinsuyu in 1532 by vowing to convert the indigenous souls with their pagan beliefs to the Catholic faith (Andrien, 2008). While the conquistadors initially sought the treasure held by mummy and their shrines, Spaniards quickly realized that the mummies were dangerous because they commanded considerable political and religious authority; they were still conferred with, and capable of, inspiring their followers to action against Spanish rule (Dean, 2010). Spaniards rapidly recognized the danger posed by the cadavers of the divine, ancestral deceased, control over the dead—both the bodies of the deceased and beliefs about them—was a critical element in the conversion efforts of early Christian evangelizers in the Andes (Harris, 1982).

Body, Soul, and the Afterlife: Modern Ethnographic Examples 

The idea that the spiritual identity and power of the dead is located in their desiccated physical remains is a very old one in the Andes. According to Inka religious traditions, the dead would reach their final destination or resting place (pacarina) after the performance of specific rituals and mummification. Yet, the individual’s mummified corpse and the objects belonging to that individual during life are both believed to house the essence of the individual after death while the essence of the individual journeyed to the afterlife simultaneously (Andrien, 2008; Dillehay, 1995). Similarly, in Catholicism, the deceased also go through a transition into the afterlife (heaven), while both the body and the objects associated with the individual continues to be sacred and possess the essence of the individual (Jeremiah, 2012).

In modern-day Peru, indigenous people in Huaquirca, Department Apurímac, Peru, prepare and process in a complex ritual of combining aspects of both Catholicism and Andean beliefs to ensure the soul reaches the afterlife. While a portion of Huaquircaños physically burry the deceased in a Christian burial, others preform a clothes-washing ceremony of the deceased’s clothing. This clothes-washing ceremony ensures that the soul does not return to the clothing he or she wore during life, but instead continues onto the afterlife (Gose, 1994). Similar to the Inka mummies, objects and the places the Huaquircaños habited during life potentially continue to possess the soul of the deceased (Gose, 1994).

The Sonqueños of the south-central highlands of Peru combine their indigenous Andean beliefs with Christian ideas about the afterlife. The Sonqueños burry their dead in their cemetery in the Christian tradition, yet they conceptually locate their ancestors in the chullpas (burial houses or towers) on their sacred hill located near their village (Allen, 2002). While the bodies are physically the cemetery and conceptually occupy the chullpas, the souls, or essences, of the deceased also travel to what the Sonqueños refer to as hanan pacha (upper world), which they also define as the Christian heaven (Allen, 2002). Thus, the concepts of the afterlife do not diverge dramatically from the original Andean beliefs; rather, the concepts of the afterlife are incorporated into the Catholic worldview.

Purity of the Preserved Body

Inka mummies were ancestors that were meant to be visited and preform as oracles. It would therefore follow that the preservation of their corporeal form was imperative. In fact, during the Spanish extirpation, Andean people removed the bodies because the deceased from Catholic cemeteries. They reported that the dead were unhappy with burial; they were alone and isolated, unable to breathe and move under the weight of the earth, and overwhelmed by the stench of their own rotting flesh which had not been allowed to desiccate naturally in the cool, arid air of the traditional crypt-cave (Doyle, 1988). Among the modern-day Sonqueños in Peru, Allen (2002) notes that after death, a sinful individual is unable to accomplish his or her transformation from the body to the afterlife, and therefore be forced to animate its rotting body.

Similarly, Catholic bodies of iconic religion figures preserved due to the purity of soul; they are thus the ideal examples of upholders of the Catholic faith (Jeremiah, 2012). The body of Margaret of Cortona (1247-1297), for example, did not decay after her death, but instead gave off a pleasant sent that was interpreted as the Odor of Sanctity. Her remarkable preservation later led to her canonization (Vago, 2007) and status as an incorruptible body in the Catholic Church (Jeremiah, 2012). The bodies of the ideal Catholic, therefore, would be spiritually pure and therefore immune to decay or putrefaction.

St. Margaret of Cortona

The importance of purity and perfection in the Inka ideology is best illustrated in the qhapaq huchas, or capacocha, a ceremony during which female and male children and teenagers of exemplary of physical purity and perfection, known as ahapaq hucha, were immolate tributes to the Inka Empire (Besom, 2010). Typically, the qhapaq huchas were virgin boys, girls, and young women who were selected specifically for their good looks and lack of blemishes such as warts, freckles (Cobo 1979: 235-238 [1653]; 1990: 111-113 [1653]).

The capacocha involved leaving objects in a burial that in some way mirrored, either literally or metaphorically, the deceased (Gaither et al., 2008: 108, 113, 115-116). The ahapaq hucha would be enshrined with objects that denote markers of gender and, arguably, objects representing the ideal professions and behaviors of living males and females. For example, feminine statuettes and markers of gender, such as tipus, were deposited with girls and young women (Ceruti, 2003; Linares, 1966; Reinhard 1996, 1999; Reinhard and Ceruti, 2000). Females and female statuettes were dressed like aqlla-kuna “chosen women,” who were virgins who served as imperial gods of state (Besom 2009). Camelids were exclusively placed with boys, perhaps because in Andean society it is usually males who herd and are in charge of the llama caravans (Besom, 2009).

In sum, both Catholicism and Andean religion place emphasis on the sacredness of unblemished bodies as an indication of the purity of the individual. The bodies of the saints were physical representations of the ideal Catholic. The ahapaq huchas, similarly, were meant to embody the ideas of perfection, both physically as well as in their gendered professions.

Inka Burial Objects and Catholic Relics

Statues depicting divine individuals are used as objects of veneration and meditation in religions worldwide. The Catholic Church defines relics as the remains of a saint or holy person. There are three tiers of relics: 1) saints’ bodies and instruments involved in the crucifixion of Christ, 2) objects in close contact with a saint, such as clothing or instruments of martyrdom, and 3) objects touched by a saint (Edwards, 1997). Jewel-encrusted reliquaries to hold the relics, images of the saints and other holy persons also had considerable religion value and power in the Roman Catholic church and were therefore installed securely in the chancels of the richest monasteries and cathedrals of Europe (Jeremiah, 2012).

The physical body of the saint, however, maintains the most power in the Roman Catholic faith. The bodies, and sometimes body parts, of a specific saint were thought to possess the spiritual essence of the deceased. These saints were believed to be simultaneously present in the bodily remains and in heave also (Bynum, 1995). When a saint or high-ranking member of the church died, the body is preserved and the pieces of the body, or even pieces of clothing or objects that belong to the individual are sent to various locations (Jeremiah, 2012).

Possession of a relic body, piece of the body, and/or object belonging to the deceased was beneficial because the church or temple that houses these objects would become an important site for pilgrimages, and therefore made more money (Sharf, 1992). These bodies and body parts were believed to be reservoirs of divine energy with the power to protection and even offer advice and guidance to the faithful (Jeremiah, 2012).

Saint Coronatus, Heiligkreuztal, Germany

Similarly, the Andean people and the Inka shared similar viewpoints on the sacred nature of the body as well as the objects formally belonging to the deceased. Some of the of the treasures belonging to the deceased Inka were enshrined with the mummy, yet many objects were buried or placed in places where the deceased occupied during life (Cobo, 1990 [1653]). Because these objects were made for the ruler’s use when he was alive, Inka believed that no other person should use these objects after his death; they were considered property and remain at the service of their owner (Cobo, 1990 [1653]).

A variety of artifacts that denote the individual’s sacred status would accompany the qhapaq hucha during the capacocha. A male qhapaq hucha would be carefully entombed in a pit or bottom of a deep shaft. He would be seated, and around him would be placed or he would wear various offerings—Spondylus shell, an llawt´u (head band), a medallion, and a bracelet (Besom, 2009), along with anthropomorphic and zoomorphic statuettes made from gold, silver, copper, or Spondylus (Besom, 2010).

Just as relics served to connect Catholic cathedrals along pilgrimage routes oriented around Vatican City—the seat of the Roman Catholic faith, the qhapaq hucha were immolated in shrines that had a particular relationship with the Inka capital, Cusco. Cusco was the center of the ceque system—a series of imagined, ritual pathways radiating from Cusco and along which sacred shrines, or huacas, were placed (Bauer, 1992). Bernabé Cobo (1990 [1563]) first noted that the ceques of Cusco radiated out from the Koricancha and Bauer (1992) later found that many ceques do in fact originate at the Inka’s main temple.

Interestingly, the ceques, shrines, and the capacocha ceremony all may be intertwined. During capacocha, the selected children were taken to Cuzco and then distributed to the principal huacas—places believed to be imbued with sacred power—to be ritually sacrificed. These places were sacred shrines and sites in and around Cusco that were specifically for the offerings of children. Shrines that were further away required long processions and upon their arrival took part in festivals (Besom, 2010). Additionally, a number of Inka shrines had an oracular function, so whenever the Inkas asked for advice on important matters, they dispatched children to these shrines as immolations (Besom, 2010).

Besom (2009) argues that the child sacrifices reified the social stricter and political organization of the empire, particularly the asymmetrical relationship between Cuzco, the center of political and religious authority in the state, and the hinterlands. The capacocha was also intertwined with Inka economy—preforming these ceremonies were vital to good weather, water availability, and agricultural production (Benson, 2009). Considering the socio-economic and religious importance of the shrines and the qhapaq hucha, the capacocha ceremony is a religion procession that resembles a pilgrimage. Shrines are similar to churches and holy places that enshrine relics and the qhapaq hucha are, indeed, similar to the relics themselves. Interestingly, the ceque system links many of the shrines to Cusco as well as the Inka’s main temple—the Koriconcha—while Catholic churches also conceptually link themselves to the center of the Roman Catholic Church—the Vatican.

Capacocha of teenage girl, Museum of High Altitude Archaeology, Salta, Argentina

Bodies of Ancestors and Saints

The Catholic incursion into Peru sought to displace the visible role of the dead in the construction of social organization within the community (Sillar, 1992). In particular, the Spanish imposed a series of saint day celebrations; yet, such saint days have been adapted to serve the needs of Andean communities (Sillar, 1992). New Spanish towns in the Andes were named for a saint, and the likenesses of martyrs, apostles, and founders of religious orders were placed alongside images of Christ and the Virgin in the altar decorations and murals of churches. In the Andes, the annual celebration of the town’s patron became a major event in public ritual life. Individual saints were remembered on a daily basis. In fact, Felipe Guaman Poma, an Andean chronicler, incorporated the feasts of the saints in his monthly calendar of colonial Andean ceremonial life (Guaman Poma de Ayala, 1980 [1615/1616]).

Despite these incorporations of saints and celebrations into Andean life, indigenous populations continued to treat images and statues of saints in the same manner they treated their ancestral mummies. Chroniclers wrote that the Andean people intentionally mummified the bodies of their forbearers in order to worship them. The spirit of the ancestral mummy was thought to reside in the group’s place of origin, and could be called back to the mummy for consultation (Salomon, 1995). Jesuit missionary Jose de Acosta argued that the transformation of a body, in this case the body of an Andean ancestor, into an object of veneration was the equivalent to making what the Spanish missionaries deemed a “false” religious image, or idol. (Ramos, 2010).

All Saints’ Day, Peru

A religion that combines Catholic as well as Andean perceptions on the nature of ancestral and saints’ bodies persists in modern-day Peru. The ceremony of Corpus Cristi preformed by the Sonqueños in south-central Peru is an excellent example that demonstrates the syncretism between Inka capacocha ceremony and Catholic religious celebrations. Corpus Cristi is a moveable feast, falling in late May or June (on Thursday after Trinity Sunday). About thirty Sonqueños embark on an arduous journey to the distant peaks of Qoyllur Riti range. According to legend, a miracle took place at Qoyllur Riti: the Christ Child appeared to a shepherd boy from the nearby village of Tayankani. After playing with the shepherd boy, the Christ Child disappeared into a rock, which was ever after marked with his imprint (Allen, 2002).

The Qoyllur Riti mountain range represents three important tenants in the Sonqueños’ Andean religion: the Riti (the snow), the Taytakuna (the fathers), and the great Apus (Lord Mountains). The rock bearing Christ´s image, now enclosed in a concrete chapel, is a prototype of Sonqo´s own small taytacha—a small portable shrine consisting of a red three-sided wooden box, about one foot square and six inches deep, painted inside with a simple picture of the crucified Christ. Their powerful object, the taytacha, begins with ritual travels within Sonqo, for he is carried around the community for contributions, then visits churches and households. After weeks of preparation, the taytacha sets out on a procession that transcends the community, leading the pilgrims through a landscape of greater and more powerful Places. During Corpus Cristi, the Sonqueños traveling to the glacier peak, carrying the tayacha with them. This ritual allows the Sonqueños to confirm their relationship with the Sacred Places of regional importance and reestablish themselves as an ayllu (Allen, 2002).

The Corpus Cristi exhibits several aspects of both Andean and Catholic religions. The journey itself is described as a pilgrimage to celebrate a Catholic miracle, yet the journey itself is similar to that of the capacocha ceremony: images of the individuals who embody purity and perfection (the Virgin Mary and Jesus Christ) accompany the caravan and are taken to a mountain peak emplaced with both Andean and Catholic sacredness. The Qoyllur Riti mountain range remains to be a sacred site for the Sonqueños, be it similar to that of a Catholic pilgrimage site, or an Andean shrine. The goal of the journey is reestablish the ayllu’s social-economic ties within their community with a particular recognizing their ancient connection to the community’s ancestors, be they abstract ancestors in the afterlife, or the bones in the nearby chullpas, but not, unfortunately, the mummified remains venerated by their Inka forbearers. In sum, the Corpus Cristi ceremony combines both Catholic beliefs and Andean traditions, particularly the use of images of saints and holy individuals in lieu of actual bodies. The Sonqueños thus honor their Inka forbearers while also actively involving Catholic beliefs into their worldview.


In conclusion, the syncretism of Andean religion and Catholicism is apparent in the treatment of the mummified body through time. The perception of the preserved bodies of saints in Catholicism and Andean religion is quite similar in that both religions share similar perceptions on the post-mortem agency and socio-political power the bodies possess. This allowed for the Andean people to both readily accept and quickly modify Catholicism to fit into their ideology. The body, especially the mummified corpse, is therefore a power object that is both maintained and transformed by social and cultural forces in the Andes.

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Holistic approach to investigating anencephaly in the past and present

Archaeologists and bioarchaeologist must articulate the intellectual merit and relevance of their work to anthropological study. Just as important (if not more so), studying the past can contribute to the betterment of humanity by investigating topics germane to modern life, such as violence, migration, and disease. In particular, bioarchaeological research documenting the frequency and causes of communicable and congenital disorders can shed light on how the human condition has changed through time. Ultimately, it can help modern epidemiologists and pathologists alleviate and prevent the spread of these disorders in our world.

Today there were several articles reporting the odd rise and/or clustering of anencephaly, a birth defect, over the last three years in Washington state.  According to medical records in a three-county area, 23 cases of anencephaly were documented from January 2010 to January 2013, a rate of 8.4 cases per 10,000 lives births. That rate of neural birth defects is four times higher than the national average of 2.1 cases per 10,000 live births. Epidemiologists in Washington state plan to investigate the social, physical, and habitual similarities among the anencephalic infants and their family (particularly mothers) to determine what has caused such a dramatic rise in the defect.

X ray from an anencephalic infant, via Tech Times

Anencephaly is a neural tube birth defect that occurs during fetal growth when portions of the cranium and brain fail to develop. The abnormality is fatal; neonates are usually stillborn and those who survive the birth a die few weeks later. Epidemiologists and pathologists debate over the causes of the defect. Is it congenital? Genetic? Behavioral?

Genetics may play a part in the development. Some epidemiologists, medical researchers, and pathologists suggest that environmental conditions (such as exposure to pesticides or an insufficient amount of folic acid in pregnant mother) may play a part. Pathologists Charlotte Roberts and Author Aufderheide suggest that westernized areas produce more anencephalic infants compared to Eastern and African groups in modern populations.  Auferderheide found that the defect is more common among  infants belonging to lower socio-economic backgrounds, compared to individuals of a higher economic status (see more at Congenital Anomalies website).

Researchers believe that anencephaly occurred at the same rate in antiquity with the same etiology. Recovering examples of anencephaly in the archaeological record would be highly useful because bioarchaeologists can 1) investigate the physical attributes associated with neural birth defects and congenital diseases and 2) elucidate the cultural perceptions of infant mortality, life and death, and disease among ancient societies.

Anencephalic infant

Neural defects are not uncommon in the archaeological record, in fact, I have frequently come across a neural defect called spina bifida.  Spina bifida caused by an insufficient amount of folic acid during fetal development, which inhibits the closure of the embryonic neural tube located on the dorsal portion of the sacrum. Though the defect leaves the lower portion of the spinal cord exposed (a direct hit could permanently damage the spain cord) and it may cause paralysis of the lower limbs in later life, spina bifida is not usually fatal.

Dorsal view of sacrum, neural arches have not closed

Due to the poor preservation of juvenile remains, particularly cranial bones, understanding anencephaly in antiquity is tricky. For starters, neonate cranial bones usually don’t preserve well because they are very thin and delicate. Additionally, the cranial bones have not ossified, so neonate cranial bones are frequency found in several pieces. Depending on the decaying process (or taphonomy), such as environmental conditions, the burial/tomb structure, and carnivorous actions, the recovery and processing of infant remains (let alone an infant suffering from anencephaly) is a laborious process.

Investigating the burial placement and grave goods among anencephalic infants may help archaeologists infer the sociocultural perceptions surrounding life and death, visual defects, and infant mortality among ancient populations.  Groups in antiquity may have considered birth defects such as anencephaly taboo, and buried those infants separate from the group’s cemetery.  One of the most famous examples of anencephaly was found in the Catacombs of Hermopolis in Egypt. An anencephalic infant was found in a burial with animals, suggesting that the individual was special in some way–possibly revered. The lavishness of the burial may have served as a way for the grieving mother to overcome the traumatic loss of her infant.

Infant child suffering from neural defect, Atacama desert, Chile

So how could bioarchaeological investigations of anencephaly of antiquity help us solve the increase of the neural both defect among infants in Washington state? Is it caused by low levels of folic acid during fetal development? Is there a shared behavior among those mothers in Washington counties that caused the defect? Were those anencephalic infants of European, Eastern, or African origins?

Ultimately, the unexplainable rise in anencephaly has prompted medical professionals, epidemiologists, and bioarchaeologists to continue their search for the causes behind this abnormality. Has the rate increased since antiquity? Does the defect genetic? What are family’s doing now in Washington state to cause this defect, and were humans engaging in the same practice, exposed to the same chemicals, or simply passing on the same genes, that cause this defect? Research from all disciplines, a holistic approach to health, disease, life, and death, can help us elucidate the causes behind anencephaly and other fatal birth defects.

More on birth defects

Joyce Filer, Diseases, 1996

Christina Hollad, Congenital Anomalies

Charlotte Roberts and Keith Manchester, The Archaeology of Disease, 2010

Author Aufderheide, The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Human Paleopathology, 2011

Also see Matthews and Wheeler et al.