The ancient mummies of Chile are thousands of years older than those of the Egyptians

When you hear the word “mummy,” we bet your thoughts go straight to the dried and bandaged remains of long-preserved Egyptian pharaohs. However, despite their fame, these specimens are not the oldest mummies in the world. That title belongs to the Chinchorro people from the Atacama Desert in Chile, who mummified their dead 7,000 years ago.

The Chinchorro people, an ancient culture of marine hunter-gatherers, were the first to settle northern Chile and southern Peru around 5450 BCE. Shortly after their arrival, the Chinchorro began a new burial practice of preserving their dead in the dry desert sands that surrounded them.

These ancient burial sites are now a UNESCO World Heritage Site for their archaeological value, as they provide insight not only into this strange form of mummification, but also how the Chinchorro communities functioned and how they were socially and spiritually structured. Importantly, unlike the Egyptians who reserved mummification for their social elite, the Chinchorro offered it as a ritual for all.

So how did the Chinchorro mummify their dead? Well, the process was different than how the Egyptians approached it. First, the body would be stripped of its skin and its organs removed. Once the body cavities were dry, the skin was sewn back together. The bodies were also sometimes wrapped in complicated materials, such as wicker, sea lion skins and alpaca wool.

The faces were then covered with clay, where a mask was then placed with openings for the eyes and mouth. Finally, the mummies were given human hair wigs before being buried in the desert, in the hope that the dry conditions would preserve them forever.

The first Chinchorro mummy was documented in 1917 by Max Uhle, a German archaeologist who discovered some bodies on a beach. It is clear that these specimens were old, but at the time it was not possible to date them accurately. Then, with the development of carbon dating techniques, it was possible to date the mummies at an age of more than 7,000 years old.

mummified human with mask over face lying on a table in a preservation room

Chinchorro mummies look a little different from their better-known Egyptian counterparts.

Image credit: cristianzenon/Shutterstock.com

Since the first discovery more than 100 years ago, hundreds of other mummies have been found in the desert. Some of these have been discovered during construction work or dug up by curious animals.

The communities in Arica, in northern Chile, have been aware of these special institutions for a long time. This is because the bodies are close to the surface and thus easy to spot. As such, these people have learned to live with the dead scattered throughout their hometowns. They see them as part of their heritage and feel responsible for caring for them.

Unfortunately, due to climate change, many of the Chinchorro graves are being dug up due to abnormal weather conditions, leaving the bodies exposed to the elements. This will have serious implications for their conservation for the future, as archaeologists struggle to fund efforts to restore and preserve them.

“The museums are a bit overwhelmed by all this material,” Bernardo Arriaza, a leading expert on the Chinchorro at the University of Tarapacá in Arica, told the Guardian.

Even those in museums are now threatened by changing climate conditions. The increase in humidity has caused mold to develop in some mummies, while other mummies have deteriorated into dry rot or hungry insects. All these challenges are compounded by the variety of materials the mummies are covered with, each requiring their own storage conditions.

In 2022, a new climate-controlled museum was built near Arica to house the Chinchorro mummies. It is hoped that this state-of-the-art facility, worth approximately $19 million, can help protect these valuable artefacts from the ancient past.

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