Can the world’s oldest mummies survive climate change and other threats in the decades to come? | Smart News

A group of Chinchorro mummies, dated between 5000 BCE and 3000 BCE
CLAUDIO SANTANA/AFP via Getty Images

Mummies buried in the Atacama Desert in Chile nearly 7,000 years ago become one with the terrain. They hide under new developments and disrupt attempts to forge new pipes – and are sometimes found less than a meter underground.

They may seem like the ultimate survivors – after all, they are nearly 2,000 years older than some of the oldest Egyptian mummies. But rare archaeological treasures today are an endangered species for reasons beyond their advanced age.

BBC trips Juan Francisco Riumalló reports on the importance of mummies – the preserved bodies of the Chinchorro people of northern Chile, the “first known culture in the world to mummify their dead”.

Living on the “arid and hostile north coast” of the Atacama Desert, these “marine hunter-gatherers” maintained a civilization for more than 4,000 years, from 5450 BCE to 890 BCE, according to a Unesco report, the world cultural organization of the United Nations.

Anthropologist from the University of Tarapacá Bernardo Arriaza told the BBC they were “pioneers of the Atacama Desert”.

But their mummies suffered in the afterlife due to climate change and the lack of a unified exhibition space. Anthropologists hoped something would change in 2021, when the Chinchorro culture earned a place on the Unesco World Heritage List. The organization called the colony the “earliest known archaeological evidence of artificial body mummification”.

Since their initial documentation in 1917, archaeologists have found more than 280 mummies, reports Javier Martin of Agencia EFE. Of these, only about a hundred are accessible to the public in an exhibition space. The regional government of Arica is currently studying a “museum and archaeological park dedicated to Chinchorro” in the region.

Besides their age, what makes Chinchorro mummies so unusual is the social status of the dead: Regardless of wealth or family placement, no one was exempt from mummification.

“Everyone has been mummified” the archaeologist Valeska Laborde, head of culture and heritage of the municipality of Camarones in Arica, tells EFE. “The Chinchorros did not bury their dead.”

In fact, when a family moved elsewhere, they took the mummified bodies of their family with them, as if the dead were “accompanying them,” Laborde says.

For a time, the Chinchorro mummification strategy was firmly rooted in the “black mummy” tactic. The accounts explain a process that modern people would consider quite gruesome – a process that involved leaving the corpse without skin or internal organs. Only the skeleton remained. The bones would then be covered with “elaborate confections of reeds, sea lion skins, clay, alpaca wool and human hair wigs”, writes the Guardianit’s Laurence Blair.

For the Chinchorro, these bodies were art. They did not leave behind pottery or other forms of everyday creative tools.

“The body becomes a kind of canvas where they express their emotions,” Arriaza tells the Guardian. “The Chinchorro transform their dead into veritable works of pre-Hispanic art.”

They may also have used mummification and preservation of the dead to make sense of their unusually high death rate. The soil in the Arica region has a high concentration of natural arsenic, according to research by archaeologist Vivien Standen of the University of Tarapacá. The Chinchorro also decorated their bodies with manganese paint, which could have poisoned them unintentionally.

In an article published in the journal Evolutionary anthropology, Arriaza and Standen call the Atacama a “poisonous environment” for its prehistoric inhabitants. “The rivers that animate the Atacama Desert are paradoxically loaded with arsenic and other invisible and tasteless minerals,” they note.

For those who still live among the mummies, living among the dead isn’t so much scary as it is part of their daily lives. Those who reside in Arica embrace the history that surrounds them and feel it is part of their heritage.

“I think we are the continuation of the Chinchorros,” Arica resident Alfredo Guerrero told the BBC. “…I’m not going to leave this place.” I will always stay, so I will always visit them.

Teresa H. Sadler