When we think of mummies, Egypt springs to mind: sensational tales of discovery, curses, boy kings and treasure. Indeed, preserving bodies in this way is a very ancient practice, dating back about 5000 years to the First Dynasty. However, for the oldest mummies in the world, we need to look to stone-age South America; to the driest place on earth, the Atacama Desert in Chile.
The archetypal site is called Chinchorro Beach and has revealed many cadavers. Evidence suggests that the very earliest mummies, at 9000 years old, were naturally preserved by the elements. However, the vast majority have clearly been deliberately treated before being deposited in a grave. Chinchorro cemeteries help to unravel clues to how these hunter-gatherer communities lived.
Living in such an arid location by the sea, it would be natural to assume that they relied heavily on that particular resource. Indeed the remains of fish, sea birds and marine mammals confirm this was their primary diet. Also, grave goods consisted of fishing nets and bone-made hooks.
How were Chinchorro mummies made? Preparation began by beheading and dismembering the body, before de-fleshing. Now the organs and bones could be removed and artificially heated to dry everything out. The bodies were reassembled with reinforcing sticks and sometimes grass stuffing. Everything was covered in a paste made from ash; a kind of ‘new’ skin. Once dried, they were painted either red or black and a stylised face was added. Preparing the dead was an elaborate process.
The striking difference between these mummies and those from Egypt is who was mummified: the Chinchorro did not just preserve elite members of society. They buried their dead in communal cemeteries and included just about everyone – men, women, old, young and even the unborn. This custom is absent from the archaeological record from about 1500BCE. Why these people mummified their dead and why they stopped, we may never know. One thing is certain though, the practice seems to have spread across the continent. We encounter it, in varying forms, time and again and in multiple cultures.
Interestingly, when the world’s attention was on Egypt in the 1920s and ’30s, Henry Wellcome chose to collect mummies from South America. It is fair to say that human mummification is ubiquitous to that region: the home of the original mummy makers.
Rock is a Visitor Experiences Assistant at Wellcome Collection.