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Open Collection of Student Writing (OCSW)

The Chinchorro Mummies

For the longest time, it had been believed that the mummification process of the ancient Egyptians was the oldest. However, in 1917 in the Atacoma Desert (Bahn, pg. 167), German archaeologist Max Uhle made a discovery that changed everything (Dhwty). His discovery was that of the Chinchorro Mummies. It was found that these mummies had been created two-thousand years before those of the ancient Egyptians (Wikipedia), and researching these mummies has helped archaeologists uncover the secrets of a people that lived at least 9,000 years ago (Wikipedia).

Found on the Southern coast of Peru, the Chinchorro mummies have fascinated archaeologists for years (Scarre, pg. 338). With further investigation, it was found that the Chinchorro people had four different mummification forms they used in preparation of burying their dead. These four forms were Natural Mummification, Black, Red, and Mud-coated (Scarre, pg. 339). The first form was Natural Mummification. Here, the faces of the mummies were painted with red ocher and black manganese (Scarre, pg. 339), wrapped in mats, textiles, or animal skins, then laid out in the hot and humid desert.

Following the Natural Mummification and lasting from 5800-3800 B.C. was the process of the black mummies, known by the black manganese “used to draw facial features and other designs” (Scarre, pg. 338). Here the body was “eviscerated, defleshed, disassembled” (Scarre, pg 338). Once this process was done the body was filled with soil, plants, clay, and wood. Afterwards wooden poles would be added to give structure to the mummy (Daley), and the skin would be sewn back on using human hair and cactus needles.

It has been discovered that after about 1700 B.C. the Chinchorro people ceased using any form of mummification, but “returned to reliance upon the natural desiccation in hot sands” (Scarre, pg. 339). Although there is not much evidence to suggest why, one such claim comes from archaeologist Christina Warinner, who suggests that it was a stable food source that started the Chinchorro people mummifying their dead. Ms. Warinner suggests that due to the climate becoming drier and the food becoming scarce, these people moved on and ceased the mummification process (PRI).

Researchers are using medical technology to help discover more of the untold secrets of the Chinchorro people, and radiocarbon dating has helped to decipher that the mummies themselves are at least 7,000 years old (Bahn, pg. 168). Radiologist Marcelo Galves has said that the next step is to “try to dissect these bodies virtually” (Daley). Galves says that should they be able to accomplish this feat without touching the bodies and transferring oils and other chemicals from living human skin, it should allow archaeologists to preserve the bodies of the Chinchorro mummies for another 500,000 years.

“More than 280 Chinchorro mummies have been recovered” (Fagan, DeCorse, pg. 91), all well preserved, 96 of these mummies having been found mostly in the loose sands of the desert (Wikipedia). Bone chemistry has revealed a diet that was heavy in seafood, and evidence of tapeworm infestations and auditory exostois (“a bony anomaly located on the tympanic portion of the temporal bone”) (Koruyucu), suggest that these ancient people dived for their fish (Bahn, pg. 168). However, fish was not their only source of sustenance. “Analysis of trace elements in bone and hair, indicate a mixed diet” (Bahn, pg 168), telling researchers that the Chinchorro people hunted and gathered as well.

A mummification process can tell a lot about ancient cultures, no matter how ancient, and gives insight into a world where little to no form of written records can be found. It may also be one of the best examples of evidence as the body is well preserved, showing us a mirror into the life and death of the deceased. It also shows that somewhere down the genealogy time-line of prehistory, religion came to play a key part, as it is highly believed that people mummified their dead as a means of passage into the afterlife. These ancient people may have lived and died thousands of years ago, but their mummies show us evidence of their existence; and give us a door into the vast secret that is human evolution.

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