The race to save the decaying Chinchorro mummies

Chinchorro mummies at the museum in San Miguel de Azapa.  Image Credit: Wikipedia

Chinchorro mummies at the University of Tarapacá’s San Miguel de Azapa Museum in Arica, Chile Image Credit: Wikipedia

The doll-like mummies of the Chinchurro culture are the oldest mummies in the world but have started to decompose at an alarming rate in the last ten years. Museum officials at the University of Tarapacá’s San Miguel de Azapa Museum in Arica, Chile found that the 120 mummies in their collection were starting to decay and their mummified tissue was turning “black and gooey.” The museum rushed to find out why the remains were decaying and figure out how to prevent further damage.

The Chinchorro mummies were discovered 1917 by German archaeologist, Max Uhle, since then about 282 mummies have been found. The Chinchorro people, who lived in the arid region of northern Chile and southern Peru, started preserving their dead around 5000 BC, which is about 2000 years before the Egyptians. Everyone in this community had access to mummification, no matter their social status, though the manner of preservation might have differed.  For example, the body belonging to a poor person might have been naturally mummified and the body of a person from a higher economic status would have had their organs removed and body preserved with straw and paste.

The methods that the Chinchurro used to mummify their dead fall into four categories: black, red, mud-coated, and natural.

  • For the “black” method, practiced from 5000BC to 2800BC, a Chinchurro embalmer skinned and dismembered the body; detached the head to take out the brain; removed the organs; reattached the head and limbs with sticks; filled the abdominal cavity with straw; covered the body in a thick paste that was also used to reconstruct facial features; attached a wig and covered the entire body with black manganese.
  • For the “red” method, practiced from 2800BC to 1700BC, an embalmer skinned the body and detached the head to take out the brain (the body was not dismembered); made smaller incisions to remove organs; filled the abdominal cavity with straw; attached a wig and covered the entire body with red ochre.
  • The “mud-coated” method was a much simpler process and was practiced from 1700BC to 1500BC. Only the outside of the body was treated and a thick layer of paste, made with sand and an animal protein, was applied all over the corpse.
  • Almost a third of the Chinchorro mummies that have been discovered to-date were preserved naturally, and date from the establishment of the Chinchorro culture to its decline. This is the simplest method because the bodies were left outside in the arid environment of this region, where bacterial growth was stopped and tissues dried out.
The black chest of this Chinchorro mummy, at the University of Tarapacá’s archeological museum, shows signs of decay, Image Credit:  Vivien Standen via CBS News.  Click here for full size image.

A mummy at the University of Tarapacá’s museum shows signs of decay, Image Credit: Vivien Standen. Click here for full size image.

Ralph Mitchell, professor emeritus of applied biology at Harvard University, and his team examined the mummies and experimented with mummified tissue and pig carcasses to try to figure out why the mummy’s were decomposing. They discovered that in conditions of high humidity naturally occurring bacteria on skin consumed the tissue on the mummies after 21 days. Mitchell recommended that the museum keep the humidity in the room where the mummies are kept between 40% and 60% to prevent further decomposition.

Marcela Sepulveda, a professor of archaeology at the University of Tarapacá, told CBS News that humidity levels in the region have increased in the last ten years and Chile’s changing climate maybe why the mummies are putrifying.

The good news is that the museum at the University of Tarapacá can prevent further decay in the mummies in their collection. The bad news is that there is little that can be done to halt the process in mummies that have yet to be unearthed.



Categories: Archaeology, News

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