Oldest Mummies in the World Are Turning into Black Slime
The Chinchorro mummies of Chile, which have been preserved for at least 7,000 years, are turning into black slime due to rising humidity levels causing bacterial growth on the skin. More than one hundred mummies – the oldest in the entire world – are turning gelatinous as a result of the rapidly spreading bacteria. Chilean researchers are now seeking funds to preserve the deteriorating mummies before they are lost for good.
The Chinchorros were a people who inhabited the coast of the Atacama Desert in northern Chile and southern Peru between 7000 and 1500 B.C. The people of this culture relied on fishing, hunting and gathering for subsistence. Whilst the earliest known Chinchorro sites date to 7000 B.C., mummification, based on current evidence, dates to 5000 B.C. The Chinchorro mummies were first identified in 1917 by the German archaeologist, Max Uhle. Further excavations showed that such mummies were spread along the coast and concentrated between Arica and Camerones. It was in 1983, however, that the largest and best-preserved find of Chinchorro mummies was discovered. This discovery was made not by archaeologists, but by the Arica water company whilst laying a new pipeline near the foot of El Morro.
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Valley of the Moon in the Atacama Desert (Reinhard Jahn Mannheim/ Wikimedia Commons )
Chinchorro mummies are one of the wonders of Andean archaeology and appear to reflect the spiritual beliefs of the ancient Chinchorro people, although the exact reason why they mummified their dead is unknown. Some scholars maintain that it was to preserve the remains of their loved ones for the afterlife, while another commonly accepted theory is that there was an ancestor cult of sorts, since there is evidence of both the bodies traveling with the groups and of being placed in positions of honour during major rituals, as well as a delay in the final burial itself.
Unlike the ancient Egyptians, who reserved mummification for royalty and the elite, the Chinchorro community accorded everyone, regardless of age or status, this sacred rite. The decision of egalitarian preservation is proven in the mummification of all members of society and included men, women, the elderly, children, infants, and miscarried foetuses. In fact, it is often the case that children and babies received the most elaborate mummification treatments.
Often Chinchorro mummies were elaborately prepared by removing the internal organs and replacing them with vegetable fibres or animal hair. In some cases, an embalmer would remove the skin and flesh from the dead body and replace them with clay.
Radiocarbon dating reveals that the oldest discovered Chinchorro mummy was that of a child from a site in the Camarones Valley, about 60 miles south of Arica in Chile, and dates from around 5050 BC.
The head of an ancient Chinchorro mummy from northern Peru (Photo by Pablo Trincado/ Wikimedia Commons )
Despite surviving for at least seven millennia, they began deteriorating about 10 years ago, when moisture began to allow bacteria to grow, said Ralph Mitchell, a Harvard University professor emeritus of applied biology. About 120 mummies, which radiocarbon dating date from 5050 BC and before, are rapidly deteriorating in the archaeological museum of the University of Tarapacá in Arica, Chile.
Reuters reports that Sergio Medina Parra, anthropologist and department head at University of Tarapaca in the northern city of Arica. is leading an attempt to get the Chinchorro mummies recognized by UN heritage body UNESCO as a world heritage site.
"The application is not a goal in itself, but the start of a process, of improved conservation tools, with the Chilean state and the international community," he said [via Reuters].
Only around 300 Chinchorro mummies have been discovered over the years. It is essential they are protected in order to preserve the last traces of this fascinating ancient culture.
Chinchorro mummy, south coast of Peru or north coast of Chile, 5000-2000 BC - San Diego Museum ( public domain )
Top image: A Chinchorro mummy showing signs of deterioration on the chest with the skin turning into black slime. Credit: Vivien Standen.