“The oldest known archaeological evidence of artificial mummification of bodies”, according to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (Unesco), is present 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 2,000 years before the Egyptians.
The value was recognized by Unesco, which included, at the end of July 2021, their mummies and the area that keeps their archaeological finds on the World Heritage List.
a society of fishermen
The chinchorro culture inhabited the region between the ports of Ilo, in Peru, and Antofagasta, in Chile.
Despite being 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 several streams that cross it to discharge into the sea.
Thus, the chinchorro specialized in the exploration of marine resources and even developed several tools to facilitate the fishing activity, such as a hook made from cactus spines and harpoon tips.
The description made by Unesco also speaks of “tools made of materials of mineral and vegetable origin, as well as simple instruments made of bones and shells”.
Information from the Chilean Museum of Pre-Colombian Art reveals that “from tumors found in the ears of mummies at the time, it is known that they dived to great depths”.
Their fishing skills allowed them to build semi-permanent settlements at the mouths of rivers and streams in the area.
Although there is little information about how they were organized, there is evidence that they gathered in groups of 30 to 50 people who apparently had some family relationship.
How the chinchorro mummified the dead
According to information from the University of Tarapacá, in Chile, which has been leading the research and conservation of the chinchorro culture, the mummification process consisted of extracting the organs and viscera of the dead through incisions and replacing them with vegetables, feathers, pieces of leather , wool and other materials.
The scalp and skin of the face was also removed, and the skull was opened to remove the brain—once it was dry, it was filled with ash, earth, clay and animal hair.
Finally, the face was modeled, which was adorned with a wig made from human hair. The body was dressed in vegetable cloth and covered with a layer of clay.
Although at first the chinchorro mummified only newborns and children —which were preserved with clay figurines—, in their heyday, around 3000 BC, they even mummified all types of members of society, regardless of age.
Different types of mummies
Also according to the University of Tarapacá, 208 mummies have been analyzed so far. The study of the sample revealed that the embalming techniques used by these people varied over time and were simplified in the final stages, contrary to what happened with the Egyptians, who became more sophisticated in their techniques.
There are black mummies, covered in manganese oxide; red mummies, painted with iron oxide; and bandaged mummies. Among the commonalities they share are the wig, a face mask and sticks to strengthen the body.
“The chinchorro culture considered its mummies as part of the world of the living, which explains why they left their eyes and mouth open and used stretchers, made of plant fiber or animal skin, to transport them,” says the University of Tarapacá .
Advanced embalming techniques, aided by the climatic conditions of the desert and saline environment of the Atacama, led to the preservation of around 120 mummies that are now in the collection of the Archaeological Museum of San Miguel de Azapa, in Chile.