The Pre-Columbian cultures of Mesoamerica (Mexico and Central America) and Western South America believed the soul was immortal and thus practiced inhumation of the body. As in Egypt, death was not a final state, but served as the soul’s transition from one realm of existence to another. Though Pre-Columbian cultures shared beliefs about burial, they had different views about the afterlife.
Most Mesoamericans had a bleak view of life after death in which only a select group of souls went to heaven. The Aztec believed that the majority of souls descended to an underworld called Mictlan, which was ruled by the god of death, Mictlantecuhtli. In contrast, many Andean cultures of South America had a more optimistic view of the afterlife. The Inca believed the souls of virtuous individuals ascended to heaven, while evildoers lived in a cold, barren underworld. Andean treatment of the deceased’s body also reflects the positive view of death. Family members wrapped the deceased in textiles and often put colorful, animated masks on their heads. The arid environment naturally transformed the bodies into mummies, and the masks provided the desiccated bodies with a new face in the afterlife. The masks preserved the deceased’s personality and ensured the soul’s immortality. The dead continued to play an active role in the lives of relatives who worshipped their ancestors as protective spirits.