Researchers Find Potential Evidence of Oldest-Known Mummification

Newly discovered photographs help researchers to re-analyze 8,000-year-old remains from burials in Portugal

Computer generated illustration of 3 bound bodies demonstrating various stages of the breakdown of soft tissue
An illustration of a mummification experiment shows a bound body's breakdown of soft tissue after three weeks, and after seven months. The European Journal of Archaeology

Archaeologists believe they’ve discovered the earliest-known evidence of mummification, according to a study published in the European Journal of Archaeology. The evidence is based on new analysis of more than a dozen human remains unearthed in the 1960s at hunter-gatherer burial sites in Portugal’s southern Sado Valley, along with the discovery of lost images taken during the initial excavations reports Tom Metcalf of LiveScience.

The 8,000-year-old human remains, now disinterred and held at Portugal’s National Museum of Archaeology, are believed to be the first signs of mummification in Europe, dating back to the Mesolithic period (10,000 B.C.E. to 8,000 B.C.E.), according to Science Alert’s Michelle Starr.

The researchers say they have uncovered fresh insights into the burial practices of Mesolithic Portuguese communities, including desiccation, maintenance of the body and curation, according to a statement. Mummification, reports Metcalf, “could have been widespread in this region at the time.”

black and white image of two skeletons in fetal positions half buried in sediment at dig site
The artificial mummification of remains found in Portugal's Sado Valley demonstrates the heavy importance Mesolithic communities placed on preserving and burying bodies. The European Journal of Archaeology

Prior to the Portugal discovery, the previously believed oldest case of artificial mummification was the 7,000-year-old Chinchorro mummies found by German Archaeologist Max Uhle in 1917 in the port city of Arica, located in Chile’s Atacama Desert. Dated 2,000 years before the famed Egyptian mummies, the Chinchorro bodies were preserved by hunter-gatherer communities, who used advanced techniques, such as removing organs and stuffing the body with natural materials such as clay or wood.

The researchers analyzed photographs from three rolls of undeveloped film that were found among the possessions of the deceased Portuguese archaeologist Manuel Farinha dos Santos. The developed images depicted the burial excavation with exceptional quality, and allowed the research team to reconstruct how the remains were handled prior to burial, per Science Alert.

At the time of the excavation, the burials weren’t seen as evidence of mummification, and the remains were disinterred and moved to the museum. While there were some sketches and other photographs of the site, these were poor quality and limited the possibility for follow-up study.

While Farinha dos Santos did not help with the actual dig, he did do some work for the museum. After his death, team leader Rita Peyroteo-Stjerna and her researchers examined the images in conjunction with photos taken of archaeological digs carried out in Portugal’s Poças de S. Bento in 1960 and Arapouco in 1962. By looking at the human remains while still at the excavation site, as seen in the photographs, the archaeologists could “reconstruct, in better detail, how the remains had been handled prior to the burial,” according to Science Alert.

Scientists have often had difficulties analyzing prehistoric mummification processes due to the breakdown of soft tissue overtime, which is needed to determine if remains have undergone curation. This along with humid climates and lack of written records from that time period makes it difficult for researchers to further study the topic. Most surviving mummies date between a few hundred and 4,000 years old, according to the statement.

black and white image of skeletal remains bound into a fetal position in sediment at dig site
The clumping of the lower limbs suggests the body was prepared and desiccated prior to burial. The European Journal of Archaeology

The team used a technique called archaeothanatological analysis which examines the spatial distances between bones in the grave over time in relation to post-mortem human decomposition. Using this information, scientists can determine how a dead body was handled and buried. The team then combined this data with the study results of human decomposition experiments conducted at Texas State University’s Forensic Anthropology Research Facility, reports Martin M. Barillas for the Birmingham Times. For these results, the team looked for three key characteristics: joints flexed beyond normal range of motion, joints remaining connected, and a quick filling of sediment around the bones.

All elements were present in at least one of the burials in the study, per the statement. Even weak joints like those in the feet showed evidence of connection, and some of the bodies were buried in an extremely flexed position with the legs bent at the knees and placed in front of the chest.

The researchers say this means the bodies were likely buried after already being mummified, as the drying out process would maintain joint connections while allowing for a large range of motion due to the reduction in soft tissue.

Researchers believe this means the mummification may have taken place over a long period of time. The body would eventually break down and was gradually dried out, and then was bound into a knees-to-chest position using rope or bandages. The bound body would be more compact and lighter to carry (due to the soft tissue reduction), making it easier to transport to the burial site while maintaining the body’s appearance, according to the statement.

“These practices would…underscore the significance of the burial places and the importance of bringing the dead to these locations in a manner that contained and protected the body, following principles that were culturally regulated,” per the statement.

In the study, the team says this evidence of early European mummification reveals how hunter-gathering societies placed heavy importance on both maintaining and preserving the body as well as the burial process during the Stone Age. This could help expand upon further understanding of how prehistoric communities cared for their dead.