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Left: Painting of Aymara Indians circa 1890-1892. (Public domain) Right: Modern-day Aymara indigenous women. (Pedro Szekely / CC BY 2.0)

SCIENCE & TECH: Bolivia’s Fiesta de las Ñatitas: Venerating Human Skulls and the Dead


As the sun reaches its zenith, people begin to flood the streets of La Paz, holding in their hands glass urns containing — wait for it — skulls. Although to many cultures this practice may seem macabre, for the people of Bolivia it is a special celebration known as the  Fiesta de las Ñatitas .

Ñatitas is the word used for the skulls Bolivians carry during the celebrations and according to  Smithsonian Magazine , it translates as “little pug-nosed ones.” Many may confuse this festival with the Mexican  Day of the Dead , however the festival of the skull is more a celebration of life rather than  death. Every year on November 8, the Aymara Indians honor the forgotten dead or those who had passed away violently.

For the Aymara, this tradition has been passed down from generation to generation. The skulls are a venerated and honored by its devotees. However, in order to understand the celebrations of the  Fiesta de las Ñatitas , it’s important to recognize how it was developed and influenced by colonial powers in Bolivia: the Inca and the Spanish.

The Aymara and their Inca Colonizers

The Aymara have lived in the high Andean plains for more than 2,000 years. According to some sources they were the descendants of the Tiwanaku civilization, which originated around  Lake Titicaca  in modern-day  Bolivia and lasted from about 300 to 1150 AD.

The Tiwanaku people were master builders, who constructed impressive structures, the most important being the Temple of Kalassasaya. Rituals and religious ceremonies were held in these sacred buildings, and within the temple complex is located the sunken temple, where the walls are lined with the carved heads of the Tiwanaku ancestors.

Unfortunately, little is known about the Tiwanaku religion, but archaeologists are trying to piece together the evidence. The Aymara do have  oral traditions , that they have carried forward from the past, keeping their ancestral legacies alive. Even now the Tiwanaku temples still hold a special place for the Aymara Indians.

The first culture that had a significant impact upon the Aymara were the  Inca, who arrived in  South America  in the 13th century. At first a small inconsequential mountain tribe, it wasn’t until the late 14th century that the Inca, under the leadership of  Pachacuti, began to expand their empire. For 100 years, the Aymara were able to resist the Inca, however by the 15th century the Aymara finally succumbed to Inca rule.

Unlike most colonizers, the  Inca tried to integrate the various tribes that came under their control. Tribes like the Aymara were allowed to retain their own language and culture. Their religious customs, on the other hand, were greatly influenced by their Inca overlords. Therefore, the religious practices became a unique fusion between their traditional, indigenous practices and the religion imposed by the colonizers.

Left: Painting of Aymara Indians circa 1890-1892. ( Public domain ) Right: Modern-day Aymara indigenous women. (Pedro Szekely /  CC BY 2.0 )

A Culture Based on Respect for the Dead

Within the Inca belief system, they developed a culture with such respect for the dead that the corpses were considered living creatures, even after the person had passed. They believed that the human world was closely linked with the spiritual and that the dead had influence over events in our world.

The Inca held Mallqui rituals, in which the mummies were brought out of storage, decorated and placed on display. Then the mummies would be given offerings of food and  Chicha (maize beer). It is within these rituals that people would come together and share the history of the clan. They were thought to please the gods and ensure prosperity and spiritual merit.

Unfortunately, not everyone was granted the honor of mummification, a privilege reserved only for members of the royal family and influential families. Their corpses were treated as living beings, and thus they were fed, dressed and cared for as they had been when they had been alive. In return for the respect of the living, the dead would offer the families protection, maintain the land fertile and ensure the water kept flowing.

Within the book  Great Empires,  it says:

“When a ruler died, his body was mummified and buried with treasures, much like the deceased kings of ancient Egypt. Mourners declared that he had gone to heaven to join “his father, the Sun.” The Inca honored their gods and their present or past kings with offerings of food and drinks as well as animal or human sacrifices.”

Within Inca religion, the head had not only religious value but also showed the power of the warriors. Garrido and Morales write:

“Dismembered heads are a powerful and iconic symbol of violence and power in the Andes. Their presence has been associated with ancestor veneration, agriculture, fertility, and cycles of community renewal. They have also been interpreted as a sign of victory and power over defeated enemies and protection against the energy of enemies.”

Mural painting showing the Spanish conquest of the Americas. (Matrioshka / Adobe Stock)

Mural painting showing the Spanish conquest of the Americas. ( Matrioshka / Adobe Stock)

Methods of Passing on Ancestral Knowledge

The Inca lacked a written language, so knowledge was passed an orally or through a unique system of knots called the  Quipu. Most of what we know about the traditions of the Inca comes surprisingly from sources written by the  Spanish. The  First European Chronicle of Peru  was written by Pedro de Cieza de Leon, who arrived with the Spanish conquistadors. With permission from the government officials, he began to interview Inca lords and high officials about Inca culture and traditions. Apart from conquistadors, catholic missionaries also accompanied the Spanish.

An incident that has been recorded was when the Inca ruler  Atahualpa examined a Bible which had been given to him by the priest Valverde. Atahualpa looked through the Bible and then threw it to the ground. In a rage Valverde ran to the Spanish, shouting “Come out! Come out, Christian! Come at these enemy dogs who reject the things of God.”

The zeal to convert the natives to  Christianity was intense, the missionaries tried to suppress the native religious institutions and convert the natives to Christianity:

“The Catholic priests were often relentless in their zeal to convert the natives. They took over or demolished temples; destroyed idols, mummies, and quipus; and abolished rituals and festivals. One priest, Francisco de Avila, made a thorough inquiry into old religious practices to prove their inferiority. These chronicles were known as Idolatrias, and record many of these of the beliefs and legends of the conquered people.”

Despite their efforts, the Spanish missionaries were unable to stamp out the Inca belief system. Despite all their efforts, there was only a superficial conversion to Christianity. The  Fiesta de las Ñatitas , is a blend of Inca religious beliefs and Spanish Christianity.

Decorated skulls, or ñatitas, during the Bolivian Fiesta de las Ñatitas. (Carlillasa / CC BY-SA 4.0)

Decorated skulls, or ñatitas, during the Bolivian Fiesta de las Ñatitas. (Carlillasa /  CC BY-SA 4.0 )

The Bolivian  Fiesta de las Ñatitas  Festival

The festival of the  skull is conducted in the General Cemetery of La Paz, where thousands gather to celebrate. Traditions of the Aymara dictate that the people come together on the day, attend mass and honor their  ñatitas. The clear influences of the Inca and the Catholic influence of the Spanish can clearly be seen.

The skulls are placed on an altar, where they are decorated with candles and flowers, even a cigarette is placed in their jaws. Coca leaves from the sacred plant are offered to the  ñatitas. The Aymara chew the leaves, use them for preparing a hot drink and it is also used for medical rituals.

However, there is a reason why the  Fiesta de las Ñatitas  is held on November 8. Linked to the feast of the  All Saints , it also signals the beginning of the period of agricultural fertility. As Catholics, the  Bolivians observe All Saints, the day on which the souls of their deceased loved ones return to Earth. Once these rituals have ended, eight days later the people remember the forgotten dead, or those who died violently. It is believed that their  ajayus, or souls, were scared and still wander around the world.

The ñatitas, or skulls, maybe taken out of the houses once a year, but they hold great power and are taken care off by their family all year round. Families may often oversee more than one skull; in fact, in some houses they may have more than 20 skulls. The  skulls often have their holes filled with cotton.

The ñatitas have their own room, because their  altar takes up most of the space, and glass urns rest on cushions which may be lined with gold-colored cloth. People often visit the family, so that they may pray to the  ñatitas and present them offerings, which include flowers, candles, cola, beer, cigarettes and coca leaves.

The Faith that the Aymara have in the skulls, to which they pray and ask for advice, has been passed down from generation to generation. Despite the Spanish’s attempts to suppress native religions, the people were able to retain all that they had inherited from their ancestors. Even today, the Aymara maintain their belief in the multi spirit world and keeping a close connection with nature. The  Fiesta de las Ñatitas  may continue for many generations yet, as belief in this ancient celebration is still going strong.

Top image: The Bolivian celebration known as the Fiesta de las Ñatitas pays homage to the dead. Source: Carlillasa /  CC BY-SA 4.0

By Khadija Tauseef



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