15 Bizarre Mummification Practices From Around The World

Most people know about mummies in ancient Egypt, and have maybe even seen one or two in a museum. We know the traditions involving sarcophagi, elaborate tombs, and how mummies were made in the days of the pharaohs. But most people don't know that mummification practices aren't just confined to ancient Egypt. Mummies have been found around the world, all throughout history, and some cultures still practice mummification today. Even though this is a practice concerning the dead, it's hardly a dead art.

Why do these cultures perform this arduous and macabre act? For some, it is religious; for others, political; and for still others, it started as somewhat of a happy accident. And as to how they did it? There are a few known methods, but in some cases, scientists still aren't sure, which only lends to the air of mystery surrounding the practice. 

So, if you're scurious as to what sort of mummies exist, how to make a mummy, and why someone would make a mummy, read on. But if you've got a weak stomach, you might want to prepare yourself, because a few of these pictures are a little unsettling. 

Photo: Thomas Hawk / flickr / CC-BY-NC 2.0

  • Buddhist Monks Started Mummifying Themselves While They Were Still Alive

    Usually mummification starts after you die. For some Buddhist monks, however, the process began years before you actually passed away.

    These monks believed the path to immortality began by eating nothing but nuts and seeds and exercising vigorously to rid themselves of all body fat. Then, after three years, they would drink a poisonous tea that would cause them to violently purge themselves, removing moisture from inside their bodies while also killing off any internal parasites that might otherwise rot their flesh.

    At last, they would wall themselves into a small, closed-off stone tomb, assume the lotus position, and simply wait to die, ringing a bell each day to let people outside know they were still alive. When the bell stopped ringing, everyone knew the monk inside was dead and the mummification process was complete.

    Unfortunately, most who attempted this ritual were not successful, as opened tombs have revealed. Their corpses showed signs of decay. However, the bodies of those who achieved their goal were removed, put on display, and venerated.

  • Egyptians Mummified A Pregnant Woman

    Archaeologists with the Warsaw Mummy Project who thought they were studying the remains of an ancient Egyptian male priest were in for a surprise: The mummy they examined was actually a pregnant woman. The mummy, donated to the University of Warsaw in Poland in 1826, had been found in a coffin inscribed with the name of a male priest. Closer examination revealed that it was a woman around age 20 to 30 years with a fetus of unknown sex about 26 to 30 weeks old. The archaeologists aren't sure why a woman was in a coffin marked for a male. 

    According to the researchers, who published their findings in April 2021 in the Journal of Archaeological Science, the mummy, found at Thebes and dating to the first century BCE, "is the first known case of a pregnant embalmed body" and "opens up new possibilities of researching pregnancy in ancient times and practices related to maternity."

    The archaeologists said the fetus might have been considered "still an integral part of the body of its mother, since it was not yet born" and didn't have a name. "Thus, its afterlife could only have happened if it had gone to the netherworld as part of its mother." It's also possible the uterus might have been difficult to extract during mummification, they said.


  • Indigenous Peruvians Left Mummies In The Fetal Position

    Indigenous Peruvians Left Mummies In The Fetal Position
    Photo: unmsm_ / Instagram

    In November 2021, researchers from the National University of San Marcos in Peru announced they had discovered a fully preserved, pre-Incan young adult mummy in the fetal position, wrapped in ropes and with its hands covering its face. They found the mummy, estimated to be 800 to 1,200 years old, underground beneath a town plaza at the Cajamarquilla archaeological site outside Lima.

    "The main characteristic of the mummy is that the whole body was tied up by ropes and with the hands covering the face, which would be part of the local funeral pattern," said archaeologist Pieter Van Dalen Luna, adding that the individual was probably a young man around 25 to 30 years old, possibly of high status.

    Offerings found at the site include ceramics, stone tools, and vegetables; mollusks and bones outside the tomb suggest that people also brought seafood and llama meat. 

  • Australian And Melanesian Mummies Painted Corpses In Their Own Body Fat

    The indigenous people of the Torres Straits and neighboring islands had a particularly gruesome mummification process. First, the bodies were tattooed elaborately, often with stripes. All body fat was carefully removed from the corpses. 

    Then, all the body's orifices would be sewed shut, and their bodies smoked over a fire over the course of about ten day. During that time, mourners stood guard over the corpse, shooing away flies. The mourners were not allowed to speak at all for the entire time it took to smoke the bodies.

    Once the bodies were dried, they were further decorated, and then the removed body fat was mixed with red ochre and painted back onto the body as a preservative.

    If you think that sounds horrifying, consider this slightly different practice in the region. Some Melanesian people would place a dead body into a canoe and push it out to sea. There, its skin was peeled away, and its organs removed and replaced with palm pith. Then the body was brought back to land and dried. The tongue, the palms of the hands, and the soles of the feet were removed and given to the deceased person's spouse.

    When the mummy was fully dried, it was painted and decorated with seashell eyes, grass, and seeds. The mummy was then tied to the center post of its former home.

  • Ancient Chileans Mummified Parrots And Macaws, Possibly Because The Birds Were A Sign Of Wealth

    Ancient Chileans Mummified Parrots And Macaws, Possibly Because The Birds Were A Sign Of Wealth
    Photo: Calogero Santora and José Capriles / Universidad de Tarapacá and Penn State

    Parrots and macaws are not native to Chile’s Atacama Desert, but archaeologists have found their feathers in the area, as well as mummified versions of the birds. In March 2021, a team of scientists who studied 27 remains of macaws and parrots at five Atacama archaeological sites suggested the birds were brought to the area from 1100 to 1450 CE via trade routes. They published their research findings in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

    "Feathers are valued across the Americas and we see them in high-status burials," said researcher José M. Capriles, assistant professor of anthropology at Penn State. "The fact that live birds made their way across the more-than-10,000-foot-high Andes is amazing. They had to be transported across huge steppes, cold weather, and difficult terrain to the Atacama." 

    Capriles said the birds "seem to be eviscerated through their cloaca (a common excretory and reproductive opening), which helped to preserve them. Many times, they were wrapped in textiles or bags."

    Scientists don't know why the birds were mummified, some with their mouths open and others with their wings spread. But according to the research findings, "the captive rearing of these colorful, exotic, and charismatic birds served to unambiguously signal... wealth."

  • The Chinchorro In Northern Chile Dismember, Then Rebuild Their Dead

    Mummies in the Chinchorro style, in northern Chile, are about as far from Egyptian mummies as you can get. (They also predate the Egyptian mummies by about two thousand years.) For these mummies, the body itself isn't so much preserved as rebuilt from the ground up by a master craftsman.

    First, a dead person's skin was removed and their skull packed with straw and earth. The spine would be recreated and strengthened with wood or reeds, as would the rest of the bones. Body parts would be held together using glue made from eggs or sea lion blood. Then, with expert care, the artisan recreating the dead person would layer a thick coat of clay across the body, especially the face, and sculpt features on top of that, often creating a little o-shaped mouth for emphasis. Bodies would even get a wig. At last, the skin would be reattached when the process was finished.

    In other words, mummies made in this way were all about effort and precision, but many of them have lasted for thousands of years!