Can the World’s Oldest Mummies Survive Climate Change and Other Threats in the Coming Decades?

Up to 7,000 years old, the mummified remains are treasured by local residents

A group of mummies in northern Chile from between 5,000 and 7,000 years ago.
A group of Chinchorro mummies, dated between 5000 B.C.E. and 3000 B.C.E. CLAUDIO SANTANA/AFP via Getty Images

Mummies buried in the Atacama desert of Chile nearly 7,000 years ago have become one with the terrain. They lurk underneath new developments and disrupt attempts to forge new pipes—and are sometimes found less than three feet below ground.

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

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

Living in the “arid and hostile northern coast” of the Atacama Desert, these “marine hunter-gatherers” maintained a civilization for more than 4,000 years, from 5450 B.C.E. to 890 B.C.E., according to a report from Unesco, the United Nations’ world culture organization.

University of Tarapacá anthropologist Bernardo Arriaza tells the BBC they were “the pioneers of the Atacama Desert.”

But their mummies suffered in the afterlife thanks to climate change and lack of a unified exhibition space. Anthropologists hoped something would change in 2021, when the Chinchorro culture earned a place on Unesco’s World Heritage list. The organization called the settlement “the oldest known archaeological evidence of the artificial mummification of bodies.”

Since their initial documentation in 1917, archaeologists have found more than 280 mummies, reports Agencia EFE’s Javier Martin. Of those, only about 100 are available for public viewing in an exhibition space. The regional government in Arica is now looking into a “dedicated Chinchorro museum and archaeological park” in the area.

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

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

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

For a time, the mummifying strategy of the Chinchorro was firmly rooted in the “black mummy” tactic. Retellings explain a process modern people would consider quite gruesome—one that entailed leaving the corpse with no skin or internal organs. Only the skeleton remained. The bones would then be covered in “elaborate confections of reeds, sea lion skins, clay, alpaca wool and wigs of human hair,” writes the Guardian’s Laurence Blair.

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

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

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

In one paper published in the journal Evolutionary Anthropology, Arriaza and Standen refer to the Atacama as a “poisoning environment” for its prehistoric residents. “The rivers that bring life to the Atacama Desert are paradoxically laden with arsenic and other minerals that are invisible and tasteless,” they note.

For those who still live among the mummies, living among the dead is not so much scary as it is a part of their everyday life. Those who reside in Arica embrace the history that surrounds them—and feel it is part of their legacy.

“I feel that we are the continuation of the Chinchorros,” Arica resident Alfredo Guerrero tells the BBC. “ … I am not going to leave this place. I will always remain, so I will always be visiting them.”

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