- Chinchorro mummies
- 5050 BCE year(s)
- Chile ()
Although most famously associated with ancient Egypt, the earliest examples of artificial mummification – the intentional preservation of human bodies after death – have been traced to the Chinchorro culture, a coastal tribe that lived on the edge of the Atacama Desert (spanning modern-day southern Peru and northern Chile) between c. 7020 and 1110 BCE. There are examples of naturally mummified bodies from this region dating as far back as 7020 BCE, when the Chinchorro people took advantage of the super-arid conditions to preserve their dead. The earliest known anthropogenically modified Chinchorro mummy, that of a child from a site in the Camarones Valley, south of Arica (the driest place on Earth), dates to c. 5050 BCE. During the next 3,500 years, Chinchorro mummification evolved through three distinct styles – black, red and mud-coated – before the practice died out sometime in the 1st century BCE.
The Chinchorro mummification process differed markedly from that of the Egyptians: the Chinchorro would remove the skin of the deceased then extract the muscles and organs to reveal the skeleton. The body would then be "reupholstered" with wood, plants and clay before the skin was sewn back on. A layer of ash paste would be applied with a final coating of black manganese or red ochre (the latter indicating the era). Often, the head would be covered with a clay mask or helmet.
The Chinchorro mummies were first identified in 1917 by the German archaeologist Max Uhle.
The oldest Egyptian mummy recorded to date, on the other hand, is c. 3700–3500 BCE for an embalmed male (aged 20 to 30 years old) as reported in a paper published in the Journal of Archaeological Science in December 2018; this pushed the origin of Egyptian mummification back some 1,500 years to what had been previously assumed. The mummy, thought to have been found near the city of Gebelein on the River Nile, has been housed at the Egyptian Museum in Turin, Italy, since 1901.
In March 2022, research published in the European Journal of Archaeology put forward evidence of mummification in Mesolithic shell middens of southern Portugal dating back even further, perhaps as early as 8150 BCE. This is based on the well-preserved, contained nature of certain skeletal remains, signs that the body was dried out (desiccated) before burial, and evidence of "hyperflexion" (limbs being positioned outside of their natural range), usually achieved through binding or wrapping post-mortem. Further research is needed before it can definitively be claimed these were indeed mummies.