“The oldest known archaeological evidence of the artificial mummification of bodies,” according to the United Nations Education, Science and Culture (Unesco), is located in South America on the arid coast of the Atacama Desert.
More than 7,000 years ago, this region was inhabited by a hunter-gatherer society in which the dead were of great importance. The skillful mummification techniques of the Chinchorro culture date back to 2000 years before the Egyptians.
The value has been recognized by Unesco, which at the end of July 2021 includes their mummies and the area where their archaeological finds are on the World Heritage List.
a company of fishermen
The Chinchorro culture inhabited the region between the ports of Ilo in Peru and Antofagasta in Chile.
Although the area is very arid, the area had abundant marine resources due to the effects of the cold Humboldt Current, which creates a phenomenon called upwelling in the ocean, and the various currents that traverse it to drain into the sea.
For example, the Chinchorro specialized in marine resource research and even developed several tools to facilitate fishing, such as a hook made from cactus spines and harpoon tips.
Unesco’s description also speaks of “tools made from materials of mineral and vegetable origin as well as simple instruments made from bones and shells”.
Information from the Chilean Museum of Pre-Columbian Art shows that “tumors found in the ears of mummies at the time are known to have plunged to great depths”.
Their fishing skills enabled them to build semi-permanent settlements at the mouths of the rivers and streams in the area.
While little information is available about their organization, there is evidence that they gathered in groups of 30 to 50 people who appeared to have family relationships.
How the Chinchorro mummified the dead
According to the University of Tarapacá in Chile, which directs the research and preservation of the Chinchorro culture, the mummification process consisted of removing the dead organs and viscera through incisions and through vegetables, feathers, pieces of leather, wool, and other materials.
The scalp and skin of the face were also removed, and the skull was opened to remove the brain – once it was dry, it was filled with ashes, earth, clay, and animal hair.
Finally, the face was modeled, which was adorned with a wig made of real hair. The body was clad in vegetable cloth and covered with a layer of clay.
Although the Chinchorro initially only mummified newborns and children who were preserved with clay figures, they mummified in their heyday around 3000 BC. BC even all kinds of members of society, regardless of age.
Different types of mummies
According to the University of Tarapacá, 208 mummies have so far been analyzed. Examination of the sample found that the embalming techniques used by these people varied over time and were simplified in the final stages, unlike the Egyptians who became more sophisticated in their techniques.
There are black mummies covered with manganese oxide; red mummies painted with iron oxide; and bandaged mummies. Common features are the wig, a face mask and sticks to strengthen the body.
“The Chinchorro culture viewed their mummies as part of the world of the living, which explains why they kept their eyes and mouth open and used stretchers made of plant fiber or animal skin to transport them,” says Tarapacá University.
Advanced embalming techniques, supported by the climatic conditions of the desert and the salty environment of the Atacama, resulted in the preservation of around 120 mummies, which are now in the collection of the Archaeological Museum of San Miguel de Azapa in Chile.