The First Ancient Egyptian Mummies Might Have Appeared 1,500 Years Earlier Than Egyptologists Thought

Egyptians were embalming their dead as far back as 4,100 B.C.

Flax yarn recovered from late Neolithic graves, heavily laden with resin. Photo: Ron Oldfield and Jana Jones

Eleven years ago, researchers from Macquarie University in Australia made a radical suggestion: mummification in ancient Egypt, they said, seemed to have started 1,500 years earlier than we thought. They noticed that ancient bodies recovered in the 1920s and 30s from Mostagedda, in central Egypt, contained what looked like traces of tree resin, the Sydney Morning Herald reports. Resin-based concoctions are preserving agents, and they were used in a few instances of mummification in the Old Kingdom, around 2,200 B.C. But these bodies dated back to 4,100 B.C., the Sydney Morning Herald points out. 

The team needed to provide empirical evidence supporting that hunch, however. They got to work gathering 150 linen samples from those ancient bodies and recruited archeological chemists from York University to analyze the samples' chemical makeup. The York researchers used gas chromatography and mass spectrometry to reveal the resin-like substances components: "a base of fat or oil mixed with resin from pine trees, aromatic plant extracts, plant gum or sugar and a natural petroleum," the Sydney Morning Herald describes. Interestingly, that is the same goopy recipe that ancient Egyptians used millennia later, the team points out. 

"The most surprising and probably most sensational finding was that there was no fundamental change in the recipe of the embalming mixtures used when pharaonic mummification was at its peak, some 2,500 to 3,000 years later!" Jana Jones, the lead author writes on The Conversation. She interprets this finding to mean that "the early Egyptians understood the science that would later become the basis of true mummification." 

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