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Bolivia’s celebration of skulls

Johan Nina and his grandfather sat under a tree outside a church in La Paz, Bolivia on a beautiful morning. The light was soft, and a breeze blew over the crowd gathered for a celebration at the bright white church that sits at the entrance to the city’s main cemetery.

But there is something surprising about this scene; 15-year-old Johan’s grandfather died decades ago, and in his arms Johan held his grandfather’s skull. It was crowned with wreaths of flowers, and the cloth it rested on was scattered with petals. Nearly every person in the growing crowd also cradled a skull. Some were wrapped in cloth, some rested in ornate boxes.

These skulls are the natitas, spirits that are seen as members of the family, whose health and good fortune they protect, and where they play a key role guarding the home against thieves. Their public celebration is a growing tradition in the Aymara Indian community of La Paz.

Tania Patino Sanchez is a Bolivian anthropologist who studies the natitas. She said they evolved from the ritual use of human remains, which is an ancient tradition among indigenous cultures in the Andean region, dating back as far as 7000 B.C.

Some people, like Johan, carry the skulls of family members. Others have skulls taken from small cemeteries in the city and surrounding countryside. They all rested long enough in the earth that flesh and hair have fallen away. After years underground they were dug up, some legally, some illegally, to begin new lives as companions.

Because the natitas have access to the spirit world, they make powerful allies. “He helps us with health, and with work,” Johan said of his grandfather’s skull. “Our relationship is beautiful, because we treat him well and he takes care of us.”

Taking care of the natitas, or flat noses, is exactly why the crowd had gathered at the church door. Nov. 8 is the natitas’ special day, when they come to the cemetery to visit the church, be blessed by traditional Aymara spiritual leaders and listen to music.

The church doors opened and the crowd surged forward, jockeying to place the natitas before the altar. When a priest appeared the people settled into the pews. The Catholic Church has long struggled with the natitas, whose celebration freely mixes Catholic and pre-Catholic Andean beliefs.

Though the church doesn’t officially recognize the practice, a priest appeared and talked about death, and the soul’s journey to heaven. He spoke several times throughout the day.

When the priest finished a crowd of hundreds headed outside to the cemetery, and hundreds more took their places in the pews. Along pathways throughout the cemetery shrines were set up, each natita presided over a small area. Some were attended by just one person, others were doted on by entire families. Visitors who don’t have their own natita walk amongst the shrines, asking, “Is it a boy or a girl?” and “What is her name?” These visitors shower the natitas with flower petals and light candles, asking for their protection.

Belief in the natitas moved from rural Bolivia to the city of La Paz with waves of migrants, taking root in the city by the 1940s. Then it was a secret practice kept alive by indigenous people and hidden from wider society. Today, growing indigenous power has brought the natitas into the public, Patino Sanchez said.

Antonio Chura is an amauta, an Aymara Indian philosopher and holy person. He blessed natitas outside the church, waving a smoking brazier over them. “The natita is a living thing, it’s not dead.” Holy people like amautas can communicate directly with the natitas, while regular folks talk with them in dreams, where they act as a conduit to the spirit world.

Today, the natitas are highly associated with justice and protecting material goods. They guard houses and businesses that are left unattended, and can even lead their followers to wrongdoers – stories of their uses by the police abound. Patino Sanchez said pre-colonial use of human remains was also associated with justice, and with the ability to control the rains, on which their followers depended for survival.

The natitas being celebrated in the cemetery seem to have particular tastes. In addition to enjoying candles and flowers, they like cigarettes, sometimes smoking two at a time. They also have style. Many wear hats – some are knit caps, others are the felt bowlers and fedoras worn by many Aymara people. Eyeglasses are a popular adornment, and there are even natitas sporting sunglasses. A skull wearing a hat and sunglasses and smoking a cigarette is great fodder for the photographers and journalists circulating through the cemetery, but for those who bring their natitas it’s a way to keep them comfortable, happy and looking good.

As morning turns into afternoon the cemetery continued to fill. The air smelled of cigarette smoke and roses as bands began to play – for a fee they would serenade the skulls with flutes, drums, guitars and accordions.

Ines Ugarte’s natita is named Choco. He sits before her on a cloth smoking a cigarette. They are very peaceful and companionable. Ugarte said Choco was given to her as a gift, and that if no one in her family can take care of him as she ages he will be buried with her. “It’s someone who accompanies me and takes care of me – it’s like having another person in the house. I talk with him. He doesn’t answer, but we talk.”