Scientists Set to Unravel Secrets of Oldest Peruvian Mummies Ever Found
Ancient people in the mountains of Peru revered their ancestors so much they mummified them and included their bodies in community activities, archaeologists say. Now a new study of four 8,000- to 10,000-year-old mummies from Peru's Tres Ventanas (‘Three Windows’) cave may help researchers understand more about these people, who cultivated potatoes and corn and domesticated animals around the same time as farmers in Egypt and Mesopotamia.
In recent years mummies from around the world have undergone analysis using modern scientific and medical techniques. The entire June 2015 issue of the scientific journal The Anatomical Record, all 26 articles, is devoted to studies of mummies.
What scientists learned about the Tres Ventanas mummies is detailed in a new study conducted by medical and archaeological scholars. The authors, led by L. Samuel Wann of the Paleocardiology Founation of Columbia St. Mary's Healthcare in the U.S. city of Milwaukee, wrote:
The Tres Ventanas mummies of Peru are thought to be among the oldest mummies in existence… A preliminary assessment is made of the potential of these mummies for use in future research on mummified remains. Although the Tres Ventanas cave and the four mummies were explored and then excavated by Frederic Engel in 1966-'67 … the importance of both the physical remains and the context in which they were found has only come to light in the last few years. Most important is the paleopathological examination of these remains since these mummies are found in a high altitude area of Peru where adaptation to the limited partial pressure of oxygen is a key component in broadening our understanding of human diversity in past populations.
The discovery of the cave is interesting. In 1966 Berndardino Ojeda was lost during an archaeological expedition of the coastal highlands of Central Peru in the region of Chilca, when he came upon the cave. The fertile valley of the glacier-fed Chilca River, which empties into the Pacific, has been inhabited for 10,000 years. Ojeda and Engel explored the Tres Ventanas cave and found evidence of human habitation by hunter-gatherers going back 10,000 years. So these mummies go back perhaps almost to the earliest days of Peruvian pioneers.
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Mouths of the Tres Ventanas cave, which are believed to have been dug in part by ancient mega-sloths. (Photo by The Anamotical Record)
“Central to an understanding of mummification in pre-Colombian Peru is the cultural aspect of ancestor worship.” the authors wrote. “In Peru, without the aid of surgical or chemical preparation, pre-Colombian peoples naturally dehydrated their ancestors so that, through their mummification, they could keep the deceased 'alive' as part of the community. The mummies were looked after and brought back from their graves to be fed, clothed and even consulted.”
The Tres Ventanas mummies are at the Museo Nacional de Antropologia, Biodiversidad Agricultura y Alimentaciòn in Lima. The museum has an extraordinary collection, the article states, with “a rich and comprehensive display on the origins of the human occupation of prehistoric Peru, including evidence of animal domestication and agriculture coeval [contemporaneous] with developments in other civilizations such as Mesopotamia and Egypt.” The four mummies are kept in an oxygen-free capsule that protects them from disintegration.
The mummies were never eviscerated or altered with substances that would change their molecular makeup. The ancient people of Tres Ventana mummified their loved one's remains through dehydration, which was common in the Andes Mountains of South America. Unlike coastal mummies, which are wrapped in cotton, the Tres Ventanas mummies were wrapped in fur.
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While research teams in recent years have been examining ancient mummies from Egypt, Peru, Pueblo and the Aleutian Islands for evidence of cardiac disease, the Tres Ventanas mummies have not yet undergone such analysis, though they may yet undergo CT scans. The Peruvian mummies that were examined by non-destructive X-ray computed tomography will give evidence for the prehistoric presence or absence of artherosclerosis (heart disease) in highland areas.
The authors of the article on the Tres Ventanas mummies note that the cold, high altitude of the cave, at 3,850 meters (12,631 feet) above sea level, may have meant the people who lived in those caves were not subject to communicable diseases as much as people at lower altitudes. And the researchers expect to find that their hearts are larger than other people because of reduced oxygen at the high altitude. The heart has to pump more blood when there is less oxygen and increased pumping makes the heart larger.
A 3D CT scan of a 560-year-old Peruvian child mummy at the Cincinnati Museum Center. This mummy is much younger than the Tres Ventanas mummies, but they may undergo similar medical procedures. (Courtesy: Cincinnati Children’s)
Featured image: A child mummy with funerary items, from the Tres Ventanas cave in Peru (Photo by The Anatomical Record journal)
By Mark Miller