Pictures: Death-Cult Mummies Inspired by Desert Conditions?


Natural Wonder

Photograph by Enrico Ferorelli, National Geographic

Preserved by one of Earth’s driest climates, a long-buried corpse in Chile‘s Atacama Desert retains centuries-old skin, hair, and clothing (file picture).

Naturally dehydrated corpses like this probably inspired the region’s ancient Chinchorro people to actively mummify their dead, scientists speculate in a new study. The practice, researchers suggest, took off during a time of natural plenty and population growth, when the Chinchorro were better able to innovate and develop culturally.

Living in fishing villages along the coasts of Chile and Peru, the Chinchorro had begun mummifying skeletons by 5050 B.C., thousands of years before theEgyptians. Archaeologists have long wondered how the practice—and a related cult of death—arose, with some speculating it had been imported from the notably wetter Amazon Basin (regional map).

“Our study is one of the few to document the emergence of social complexity due to environmental change”—in this case, climate shifts that desiccated the Atacama, study leader Pablo Marquet said.

“Until now, most of the emphasis has been on how environmental change triggers the collapse of societies,” said Marquet, an archaeologist at Catholic University in Santiago, Chile.

—Ker Than

Published August 13, 2012


Death Mask

Photograph by Enrico Ferorelli, National Geographic

Laid to rest on woven reeds, a bewigged prehistoric boy—or a reasonable facsimile—bears evidence to the Chinchorro’s complex mummification rituals. Rather than preserving flesh, the desert people used a paste of manganese-infused ash to sculpt “bodies” atop defleshed skeletons, whose internal organs had been replaced with earth.

Marquet and his team think the start of the Chinchorro’s mummification practices coincided with a period of increased rainfall in the nearby Andes mountains (picture) about 7,000 years ago, as evidenced by the discovery of fossils belonging to perennial plants in regions that are so-called absolute desert today.

“That recharged the aquifers and made fresh water available in the lowlands,” Marquet said. “It also allowed for more resources in the environment, including more fish, more shellfish, and more seals to hunt.” That plenty encouraged population growth, which in turn sparked innovations, Marquet speculated.

To compare Chinchorro population fluctuations with the environmental evidence, Marquet and his team collected data on nearly 500 radiocarbon-dated archaeological sites in southern Peru and northern Chile. The resulting curve indicates that population increased dramatically about 7,000 years ago, peaked about a thousand years later, and began declining by about 5,000 years ago.

(Related: “Rare Mummy Found With Strange Artifacts, Tattoo in Peru.”)

Published August 13, 2012


Rictus Grin

Photograph by Enrico Ferorelli, National Geographic

A “black” mummy seems to smile beneath a 5,000-year-old coating of dark ash paste and a human-hair wig.

Emerging around 5,000 B.C., the black style of mummification lasted more than two millennia among the Chinchorro. Around 2800 B.C., black was replaced by red, perhaps due to a change in color symbolism or because the necessary black manganese was becoming harder to find.

(Also see “‘Frankenstein’ Bog Mummies Discovered in Scotland.”)

Published August 13, 2012


Blank Expression

Photograph by Enrico Ferorelli, National Geographic

A painted mask replaces the face of a 5,000-year-old Chinchorro mummy.

Along with the Atacama Desert’s extreme dryness, the Chinchorro’s population boom 7,000 years ago may have been a factor in their adoption of mummification, according to the study, published today by the journalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“A large population size means there is more diversity, in terms of having different people with different skills. And when a new skill or innovation”—such as a mummification technique—”emerges, it will spread faster in the population,” Marquet said.

(Photos: Huge Peru Tomb Found-80 Bodies, Ring of Babies.)

Published August 13, 2012


Family Portrait?

Photograph by Enrico Ferorelli, National Geographic

A border of whale bones mark the grave of two adult and two infant Chinchorro mummies, possibly part of the same family. The Chinchorro may have mummified their dead as a way of coping with the persistence of their ancestors’ bodies in the arid Atacama.

“In many hunter-gatherer societies, if the bodies of the dead don’t go away, they are still present. The mourning never ends,” he added. Perhaps, the study team speculates, the process of creating artificial mummies offered the Chinchorro a sort of emotional closure.

(Mummy Pictures: Secrets of Stunning 19th-Century Heads Revealed.)

Published August 13, 2012


Filling in the Gaps

Painting by Richard Schlecht, National Geographic

Early Chinchorro mummymakers “flesh out” the bones of a skinned skeleton with reeds and ash paste in an artist’s conception. Archaeologists think the Chinchorro developed elaborate death rituals around the mummies they created.

Many of the mummies were sturdily constructed, their joints reinforced with reeds and sticks. This may have been done to help the corpses withstand handling by mourners, who may have paraded the mummies around before placing them on display.

Also, some mummies have several layers of paint, indicating they were subject to wear and tear that needed periodic retouching.

(Related: Find out why experts think some Chinchorro mummies were poisoned with arsenic.)

Published August 13, 2012


See-Through Shroud

Photograph by Enrico Ferorelli, National Geographic

The 2,000-year-old masked face of a mummified Chinchorro woman peers out from shroud made from reeds, rope, and nonhuman skin, possibly of a pelican.

Unlike the ancient Egyptians, who considered only kings and other nobles worthy of mummification, the Chinchorro performed the sacred rite on nearly everyone, regardless of age or status. Infants and even fetuses were mummified with the same meticulous care as adults.

(Egypt Mummy Pictures: Scans Show Ancient Heart Disease.)

Published August 13, 2012


Borne Aloft

Photograph by Enrico Ferorelli, National Geographic

In life and death, some Chinchorro children were strapped to wooden frames worn on their parents’ backs. Above, in a detail of a larger photo, a 5,000-year-old mummified child’s feet testify to a Chinchorro practice of preserving extremities.

The study team’s speculation about the rise of Chinchorro mummification—that a flush period 7,000 years ago encouraged cultural development—works in reverse too.

Four thousand years ago, the practice “disappeared when the environment became more unstable and drier due to the El Niño fluctuations … so the environment was less able to support large population sizes,” Marquet suggested.

(Pictures: Mummy Bundles, Child Sacrifices Found on Pyramid.)

Published August 13, 2012

Case Study

Photograph by Enrico Ferorelli, National Geographic

Crumbling after decades in storage at a Santiago museum, Chinchorro mummies are repacked by curators in 1995.

Marquet said his team’s study helps highlight the role of the environment as a creative force to which humans can respond by cultural innovation. “It also emphasizes the importance of demographic factors in the emergence of social complexity, such as new tools or new ideas,” he said.

Published August 13, 2012


Stick Straight

Photograph by Enrico Ferorelli, National Geographic

The paste-faced head of a Chinchorro child mummy is held straight by a stick that emerges from the top of the skull.

Around the time that the Chinchorro stopped making mummies, ancient Egyptians took up the practice. Some scholars have speculated that mummification in North Africa might also have been inspired by bodies preserved in the desert.

“It might not be a coincidence,” Marquet said, “that this practice often develops in desert environments.”

Published August 13, 2012

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Pictures: Death-Cult Mummies Inspired by Desert Conditions?


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