The First Mummies: the Ancient Chinchorro of Peru

originally posted to Flickr as Momias Chichorro de Arica: 10 mil años de antigüeda; https://www.flickr.com/photos/82149176@N00/2097144930
The heads of Chinchorron mummies resting along the shoreline of Northern Chile. Based on injuries and locations of death, the Chinchorron were believed to have been fisherman and divers

When people hear the word mummy, most will think of the pharaohs found in tombs in Egypt. While they are the most well known, what many people may not realize is that the process of mummification has existed long before the Egyptians began doing it. Mummies, which scholars believe to be the oldest, even before recorded history, have been located in Chile, and are said to have belonged to an ancient people known as the Chinchorro.

What exactly is a mummy? A mummy is defined as “dead human or animal body [from ancient times] preserved by embalming or by unusual natural conditions.”1 Many of the areas in which mummies have been recovered all share one similar trait; each is known for extremely hot and dry weather. These climates cause the body to dry up and slow down the decomposition process.2

originally posted to Flickr as cultura chinchorro año 3000 AC;https://www.flickr.com/photos/99903552@N00/2890650679
The head of a Chinchorro mummy, found in Northern Chile. During the Mummification process, the heads were reconstructed using a black clay mask, and molded to match the person’s personality | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The oldest mummies belong to a people now referred to as the Chinchorro, who are believed to have lived between 8,000 BCE and 500 BCE. Evidence suggests that their practice of mummification predates Egyptian mummies by as many as two thousand years.3 The Chinchorro lived in the Atacama Desert, which is located in Southern Peru in Chile. They are believed to have been fisherman, living along the coast.4

Mummification was a complicated process. All organs, including the heart, eyes, and lungs were removed, followed by the skin. The body was then dried of fluids and stuffed with sticks, plant fibers, and straw. The body was disassembled by removing the bones and organs, and dried of all liquids. The body was then covered with black clay used to mold a new face, as the bones were put back into the body, along with sticks, clay, and plant fibers. A clay mask was made and placed over the skull, and the rest of the body was coated in Manganese paint, to give it a red color.5

No machine-readable source provided. Own work assumed (based on copyright claims).
A set of Chinchorro mummies located in the museum in San Miguel de Azapa. Mummification for the Chinchorro is believed to have originally been for children who had died | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Nearly two hundred Chinchorro mummies have been recovered from the Camarones River region. The earliest of these has been dated at 5050 BCE.6 The oldest mummies were children and small infants, suggesting that mummification was originally a practice carried out by grieving parents to remember their children. Upon further examination of the mummies, it is believed that high arsenic levels in the waters were the cause for high infant mortality rates among the Chinchorro.7

These mummies of Chinchorro today face great peril. Climate changes have caused the mummies to decay, along with many other treasures and artifacts. Microorganisms have grown from moisture in the air that are capable of decomposing skin. Researchers’ new goals are to find ways to preserve the ancient bodies of the Chinchorro people before it is too late.

 

  1.  Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th Edition, April 2016, s.v. “Mummy.”
  2. Salem Press Encyclopedia Of Science, January 2015, s.v. “Mummification,” by James L. Robinson.
  3.  Salem Press Encyclopedia Of Science, January 2015, s.v. “Mummification,” by James L. Robinson.
  4. Salem Press Encyclopedia, January 2015, s.v. “Chinchorro Mummies,” by Michael W. Simpson.
  5.  Salem Press Encyclopedia Of Science, January 2015, s.v. “Mummification,” by James L. Robinson; Barbara Fraser, “Mysterious Mummies: An Anthropologist and a Geologist Team up to Solve the Puzzle of Chile’s Mummies,” Science World/Current Science Vol. 26 Issue 4 (2012): 8-11.
  6. Salem Press Encyclopedia, January 2015, s.v. “Chinchorro Mummies,” by Michael W. Simpson.
  7. Heather Pringle, “Arsenic and Old Mummies: Poison May Have Spurred First Mummies,” Science 324, no. 5931 (2009): 1130.
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55 Comments

  • I thought it was great how the article pointed out the common misconception that mummies come from Egypt. I do find it somewhat interesting that humans over the past couple thousands of years have so many rituals that deal with death. It seems as though death may have been a large focus of the unknown, of what is to come. The process of mummification must have been a serious ritual for people to willing prepare dead bodies for what is assumed to happen after death.

  • Mummies were away for people back in the ancient times to remember their loved and ones and make it possible for them to go to the afterlife. Mummification is not an easy process and requires a lot of work to get the bodies in the perfect condition and ready for sealing. Mummies are interesting because it seems like a process where you can be close to the person, but yet so far away from the deceased.

  • The procedures of maintaining and creating the perfect mummification process is such a long process, and typically societies only mummify the dead that are of high importance, like the Egyptian Pharaohs. It’s interesting that the majority of mummies were children in this Chili region. There was an great description of the mummification processes and the analyzation of the contamination in the water being a possibility that effected the population and infant mortality rate. This was a nice article to have read, it was very informative.

  • It is amazing that people have been doing this advanced method for so long. However, the thing I found the most interesting was that these people were in South America and performing this advanced burial technique such a long time ago. I think that the reason that everyone knows about the Egyptian mummies is because they wanted to make them known. The massive pyramids were plenty of attention, but these Chinchorro people didn’t seem to make it about royalty, but about respect.

  • It was surprising to read that there were societies that practiced mummification before the Egyptians, and even more being it 2000 years before. It is alike in the part of removing the organs, but it doesn’t use a liquid with a concentration of salts, neither the process exclusively involves important people. It must have been a really difficult job to introduce the bones inside the bodies without damaging it.

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