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.
The First Mummies: the Ancient Chinchorro of Peru
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46 Comments

  • This article surprised me, because I had no idea of who the Chinchorro were, so it was interesting to get some information about them. I also I had no idea that, at least for the Chinchorro, it was mainly used for infants and young children. I enjoyed how you included that the preservation of the mummies is in peril because of the climate. The article did a good job of having a lot of information and still make it interesting to read.

  • It came to my surprise that they were found to originate elsewhere than commonly believed. Even more so, that they are closer to home than Egypt. To be completely honest, mummies have always creeped me out. From the looks of the to the process in which they are “created.” Nonetheless, I still uphold and support their historical value. It is very unfortunate that researchers are struggling to preserve them.

  • This article provided much information that I was not aware of. I always thought mummies were people buried alive covered in cloth. I did not think for a second there was a complicated process to it. Also, I thought mummies were same all around the world, but this article conveys a different process for different areas.

  • you did a great job on writing and giving great information in in your article. what I have always got from history was that mummies were in Egypt so I would have never guessed that they were in Peru as well. also it was a lot of work that these people would put in to mummify a body it seems like they were really dedicated to it. I had no clue that they did this to remember the children that lost there lives.

  • This is a very fascinating story, every time that i think of mummies, I think of ancient Egypt and the pyramids. It is really crazy how the customs differ from the mummies of Peru and the mummies of Egypt. In Egyptian customs, they do not remove the bones, but in Peru they did. It is really unfortunate how the mummies are beginning to deteriorate. I hope that they can find a way to preserve them so that part of history is not lost.

  • I thought this was a really great article and enjoyed reading it while researching for an honors project I did on the Chinchorro mummies. I would like to point out a factual error located at the end of the fourth paragraph where you claim that Manganese was used to give the mummies a red color. This is false. There were three major periods of mummification by the Chinchorro: the black mummies, the red mummies, and the mud mummies. They are named after their colors but you seemed to have mixed the first two phases together. Manganese was used during the black mummy phase to give mummies a black color, not red. The red color was achieved several centuries later in the red period through the use of red ochre, which is much more plentiful in the area than the black manganese. I do understand how this is confusing, but if you check my facts you will see this is the case.

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