Whether naturally preserved or intentionally embalmed mummies, these stories are as intriguing as they are disturbing.
The ancient Egyptians are perhaps the best-known group of people who used mummification to preserve their dead. They placed the bandaged corpses of their rulers in elaborate tombs along with items the deceased were said to wish for in the afterlife.
Martin Bernetti/AFP via Getty ImagesThe Chinchorro mummies are over 7,000 years old, making them among the oldest in the world.
But while Egyptian mummies are certainly some of the most fascinating examples of the mummification process on Earth, they aren’t the only instances of ancient embalming and preservation. They’re not the oldest either.
In fact, some mummies found in present-day Chile and Peru predate Egyptian mummies by several centuries. And then zzz. Of course, there are more recent mummies, some of which have been preserved by nature.
From Ötzi the Iceman to the “screaming” mummies of Guanajuato, these are some of the best preserved mummies from around the world.
The Chinchorro Mummies: The 7,000-Year-Old Bodies in Modern-Day Chile and Peru
Creative Touch Imaging Ltd./NurPhoto via Getty Images The Chinchorro mummies predate the Egyptian mummies by about 2,000 years.
Thousands of years ago, the ancient Chinchorro lived in present-day Chile and Peru. zzz. According to National Geographic, their culture eventually developed a strong emphasis on fishing — and mummification.
The Chinchorro are one of the oldest groups that humans intentionally preserved through mummification, some 7,000 years ago. zzz. And their process of mummifying the deceased was incredibly elaborate.
First, they would dismember the body piece by piece before removing all of the body’s internal organs and pulling the brain out of the skull. They would also strip the body of its flesh using stone tools. Once the corpse was dry, ancient morticians stuffed the remains with natural materials such as sticks and reeds. Then they would reattach the person’s skin. zzz
Finally, the chinchorro adorned the corpse with wigs, clay masks, and paint. One of the most commonly used colors was black. However, other mummies were painted red (these mummies were less likely to be completely dismembered during mummification and instead had cuts all over their bodies to take out the organs, according to CNN.)
Martin Bernetti/AFP via Getty ImagesThe Chinchorro culture probably inhabited between 7000 and 1500 BC. the coasts near the Atacama Desert
But while we fully understand the process ourselves, no one is quite sure why the Chinchorro mummified their dead. Of course, it could have been for ritual reasons, but others suggest that natural disasters may have inspired the Chinchorro to worship their ancestors.
According to Smithsonian Magazine, more than 280 Chinchorro mummies have been found since they were first discovered in 1917. Today about 100 of these mummies are on public display in an exhibition room.
The strangest thing about the Chinchorro mummies is that unlike other cultures, status didn’t seem to play a role in whether someone was preserved or not. People of all walks of life and families were mummified. Apparently the Chinchorro didn’t bury their dead.
Some archaeologists even suggest that the mummified bodies were art for the Chinchorro, as they left no pottery or creative tools. As the anthropologist Bernardo Arriaza of the University of Tarapacá said: “The body becomes a kind of canvas on which they express their feelings. The Chinchorro transform their dead into genuine works of pre-Hispanic art.”
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