The Chinchorro mummies: The mysteries of the world’s oldest preserved humans

When you hear the word “”, we bet your mind goes straight to the dried and bandaged remains of long-preserved Egyptian pharaohs. However, despite their fame, these specimens are not the oldest mummies in the world. That title belongs to the Chinchorro people of Chile's Atacama Desert who mummified their dead 7,000 years ago.

The Chinchorro people, an culture of marine hunter-gatherers, were the first to settle in the north of Chile and the south of Peru, around 5450 BCE. Soon after their arrival, the Chinchorro began a novel funerary practice of preserving their dead in the dry desert sands that surrounded them.

These ancient cemeteries are now inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List for their archaeological value, as they not only provide insights into this strange form of mummification, but also how the Chinchorro communities functioned, and how they were socially and spiritually structured. Importantly, unlike the Egyptians who reserved mummification for their social elite, the Chinchorro offered it as a ritual for everyone.

So how did the Chinchorro mummify their dead? Well, the process was different to how the Egyptians approached it. First, the body would be stripped of its skin and its organs removed. Once the body's cavities were dry, the skin would be sewn back on. The bodies were also sometimes wrapped in elaborate materials, such as reeds, sea lion skins, and alpaca wool.

Then, the faces would be covered in clay, where a mask was then placed that had openings for the eyes and mouth. Finally, the mummies were given wigs made of human hair before being buried in the desert, the hope being that the arid conditions would preserve them forever.

The first Chinchorro mummy was documented in 1917 by Max Uhle, a German archaeologist who discovered some of the bodies on a beach. Clearly these specimens were old, but, at the time, it was not possible to date them accurately. Then, with the development of carbon dating techniques, it was possible to date the mummies to being more than 7,000 years old.

Since the first discovery over 100 years ago, hundreds of other mummies have been found in the desert. Some of these have been discovered during building works or unearthed by curious .

The communities living in Arica, in northern Chile, have been aware of these special bodies for a long time. This is because the bodies are close to the surface, so they are easy to discover. As such, these people have learnt to live with the dead that are scattered throughout their hometowns. They see them as part of their heritage and feel responsible for taking care of them.

Unfortunately, due to climate change, many of the Chinchorro graves are being unearthed by abnormal weather events, which exposes the bodies to the elements. This will have serious impacts on their for the future as archaeologists struggle to fund efforts to recover and preserve them.

The museums are a bit overwhelmed with all this material,” said Bernardo Arriaza, a leading expert on the Chinchorro at the University of Tarapacá in Arica.

Even those held within museums are now threatened by changing climate conditions. The rise in ambient humidity has led some mummies to sprout mould, while others have fallen to dry rot or hungry insects. All these challenges are exacerbated by the variety of materials that cover the mummies, each needing its own conditions for storage.

In 2022, a new climate-controlled museum near Arica was being constructed to house . It is hoped that this sophisticated facility, worth around $19 million, may help protect these valuable artifacts from the distant past.

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