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What Have the World’s Oldest Mummies Kept Under Wraps?

Researchers are making digital reconstructions of the 7,000-year-old bodies, which face rapid deterioration from microbes

Chinchorro mummy at San Miguel de Azapa Museum in Arica, Chile (Vivien Standen)
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Roughly 2,000 years before the Egyptians began mummifying their dead, the people belonging to the Chinchorro culture had already developed fairly sophisticated methods for embalming. Now, reports Giovanna Fleitas at the Associated France-Presse, researchers are using medical technology to help unravel the history of these preserved corpses.

Fifteen of the mummies, many of them infants and children, were recently transported to the Los Condes clinic in Santiago, where researchers examined them using a CT scanner to study their fragile forms without inflicting damage. “We collected thousands of images with a precision of less than one millimeter,” chief radiologist Marcelo Galvez tells Fleitas. “The next phase is to try to dissect these bodies virtually, without touching them, which will help us preserve them for another 500,000 years.”

The researchers also hope to digitally reconstruct facial features and musculature of the mummies to reveal what they looked like in life. They also took skin and hair sample for DNA testing, which they hope will help them link the Chinchorro mummies to a modern day population in South America.

The Chinchorro culture as a whole is a bit of a mystery to modern archaeologists. It is believed that the people fished, hunted and gathered, living along the coast of the Atacama Desert in what is now northern Chile and southern Peru. Aside from mummifying their dead, people belonging to the Chinchorro culture are known for fashioning fishing hooks out of polished shells, sunk with the assistance of a stone weight.

The mummies they created, however, differed from those preserved by the ancient Egyptians. Fleitas explains that the Chinchorro would remove the skin of the deceased then carefully extract the muscles and organs exposing the skeleton. They would then fill out the body with plants, clay and wood before sewing the skin back on and covering the face with a mask.

But there is still much to learn about these ancient preserved beings—and time is becoming increasingly short. University of Tarapaca museum curator Mariela Santos began noticing in recent years that the skin of some of the 100 mummies in her collection were decomposing, turning into a black ooze reports Chris Kraul at The LA Times. The museum called in Ralph Mitchell, an artifact curator from Harvard, who cultured the bacteria on the mummies.

What he found is that common skin microorganisms that are normally benign in the dry desert climate of the Atacama had begun consuming the mummies’ collagen due to an increasingly humid climate in the northern regions. New mummies found at excavation sites near Arica are already showing signs of deterioration; mummies found in the 1980s, which were initially intact, have begun “melting” in the last decade.

“How broad a phenomenon this is, we don’t really know. The Arica case is the first example I know of deterioration caused by climate change,” Mitchell tells Kraul. “But there is no reason to think it is not damaging heritage materials everywhere. It's affecting everything else.”

Conservators are currently experimenting with combinations of humidity and temperature to help preserve the mummies, Kraul reports. Vivien Standen, an anthropology professor at Tarapaca and expert on the Chinchorro is not hopeful. “I’m not optimistic we can save them,” she tells Kraul. “From the moment they are taken out of the ground, they start deteriorating.”

A new $56 million museum, which will include the mummies, is slated to open in 2020, Kraul reports. The hope is that they can slow or halt the degradation by encasing each of the bodies in its own temperature- and humidity-controlled cube.

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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