Though many people typically associate mummies with Egypt, the oldest-known civilization to partake in mummification practices lived in South America. The Chinchorro culture created the world's oldest mummies, reportedly preceding Egyptians by 2,000 years. Scientists are uncertain why the Chinchorro mummified their dead, but they are aware that the mummies they have found are now rapidly decaying.
Like the Incans' mummy sacrifices, the Chilean mummies could have served as a reflection of the civilization's belief in the afterlife. Living in an arid climate helped preserve the bodies of the dead, but the Chinchorro people developed intricate methods of mummification and displayed an extensive knowledge of human anatomy. While some famous ancient mummies, like the strange case of the Ukok Princess, came about due to natural causes, many scientists consider the Chinchorros the creators of the oldest human-made mummies. Unfortunately, bacteria are causing the mummies to decay. Researchers endeavor to learn quickly as much as they can about the mummies.
A German archeologist named Max Uhle discovered the first Chinchorro mummy in 1917. Scientists later discovered more mummies concentrated mainly in and around Arica, Chile. The Arica water company found the largest number of mummies in 1983 when they dug a pipeline trench near El Morro. Researchers have discovered almost 300 Chinchorro mummies in total, most of which had been buried in mass graves after mummification.
Archaeologists were able to distinguish three distinct methods the Chinchorro used to mummify bodies, which mapped how the civilization improved their methods to refine the process. Scientists dated the earliest of the Chinchorro grave sites to 7000 BCE, making these the oldest-known human-made mummies on Earth.
When a museum curator noticed some of the 100 Chinchorro mummies in her collection slowly melting into a black ooze, she called an artifact curator. He discovered bacteria eating away at the mummies, a process which had not occurred until recently. The curator reasoned that because the Chinchorro buried their mummies in the dry Atacama Desert, the bodies had avoided exposure to humidity until scientists removed them from the ground.
Skin microorganisms commonly found on many living things are consuming the bodies, causing some mummies unearthed as recently as the 1980s to decompose rapidly. Researchers have made efforts to preserve the mummies longer, including controlling the room temperature and humidity level.
While many cultures - such as the Egyptians, for instance - mummified only the most elite members of society, the Chinchorro seemingly did not discriminate. Researchers believe the Chinchorro civilization may have remained egalitarian throughout its existence. Without a social hierarchy, every member of the Chinchorro could have undergone mummification after they passed away, which explains why the mummies comprised a range of ages and genders.
Scientists had discovered that children received the most elaborate mummification process, with ostensibly no special treatment for adults. The Chinchorro people's lack of a social hierarchy intrigues anthropologists who study the civilization.
From around 5000 to 3000 BCE, the Chinchorro used a method of mummification that researchers later called the Black Mummy method. The first step of the technique entailed the removal of the corpse's legs, head, and arms. After they dried the body using heat, embalmers then removed the flesh. The brain came out next after they cut open the deceased's skull.
They removed the skull, dried it, and along with the rest of the body, stuffed it with feathers and clay. This material essentially replaced the corpse's organs and bones, allowing for preservation.
After the Chinchorro reassembled the body, often using sticks in place of bones to retain structure, they sewed the skin back over the corpse, covering it in ash paste and mud to hold it in place. Finally, they set a clay mask over the face, complete with hair. The result was a mixture of human and sculpture, which stayed mostly intact for thousands of years.