Chinchorro Mummies: The World’s Oldest

May 20, 2022 0 comments

When we say mummies, we think Ancient Egypt. Indeed, Egypt has some of the most famous mummies in the world, such as Tutankhamun and Ramesses II. But the ancient Egyptians were not the first culture to practice mummification. The Chinchorro people of Chile's Atacama Desert were the first to mummify their dead.

The Chinchorro people inhabited the Pacific coastal region of present-day northern Chile and southern Peru some 9,000 years ago until about 3,500 years ago when they disappeared. The Chinchorro derived their livelihood from the sea and were expert fishermen. They developed extensive and sophisticated fishing equipment such as fishing hooks made of shells and cactuses, and stone weights for nets made of mesh fabrics. The Chinchorro were also famous for their detailed mummification and funerary practices.

Despite being located near the sea, the Atacama desert is one of the driest places on earth. This arid environment assisted in the preservation of corpses. The Chinchorro people must have noticed that their dead didn’t seem to decompose, and thus began the practice of deliberate mummification.

The Chinchorro first started mummifying their dead some 7,000 years ago. According to one theory, natural arsenic in the Camarones River, a hundred times higher than modern safety levels, may have caused the accidental poisoning and preservation of unborn babies, triggering the Chinchorro’s ceremonial treatment of the departed. The Chinchorro would make small incision in the body and remove the internal organs before filling them up with sticks, reeds, and clay to give the corpses volume. Artisans would then sew them back together either using human or sea lion skin. Usually children and babies received the most elaborate mummification treatments. The head would be given a thick black hair and the face would be covered with clay and a mask with openings for the eyes and mouth. Finally, the body was painted in a distinctive red or black color using pigments from minerals, ochre, manganese and iron oxide. The dead were then placed on cloths made of reeds and buried in the desert soil where they have stayed preserved for thousands of years due to the dry climate.

It is difficult to determine why the Chinchorro felt the need to mummify the dead. The mummies may have served as a means of assisting the soul in surviving, and to prevent the bodies from frightening the living. A more commonly accepted theory is that there was an ancestor cult of sorts, since there is evidence of both the bodies traveling with the groups and placed in positions of honor during major rituals and a delay in the final burial itself.

You can see the mummies at the San Miguel de Azapa Archaeological Museum and the nearby at the Azapa museum, which has the largest collection of mummies numbering about 300, although ninety percent of them are in storage. Until very recently, the Atacama’s dry environment had helped preserve the mummies, but with changing climate the mummies are under threat. Rise in humidity in the Atacama desert have caused the mummies to deteriorate rapidly. Some even have mold growing.

A new museum is being build that will have controlled environment for preservation of the mummies. Currently the mummies are being stored with no air-condition or humidity control. The under-construction, 20 billion Chilean peso (about $24.7 million U.S. dollars) new museum is slated to open by 2024. It’ll be 5,000 square meters in size and store the mummies at optimal humidity levels of between 40 and 60 percent.


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