The 7,000-Year-Old Chinchorro Mummies of the Andes

The 7,000-Year-Old Chinchorro Mummies of the Andes


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The mummies of ancient Egypt are arguably the most famous mummies in the world. They are not, however, the oldest that we know of. The Chinchorros of South America began preserving their dead about 7,000 years ago and their mummies have become one of the wonders of Andean archaeology.

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.

Whilst Uhle initially identified three categories of mummification to show an increasing complexity over time, archaeologists have since expanded upon his explanation. Accordingly, the two most common methods used in Chinchorro mummification were the Black Mummy and the Red Mummy.

The Black Mummy technique was used from about 5000 B.C. to 3000 B.C. It involved dismemberment, in which the head, arms and legs of the dead were first removed. Then, the body was heat-dried, and the flesh was completely stripped from the bones. The skull was then cut in half, about eye level, in order to remove the brain. After drying the skull, it was packed with material and tied back together. The rest of the body was also put back together. To strengthen the limbs and spinal column, sticks were used under the skin. The body was also packed with materials such as clay and feathers. The skull was then reattached to the reassembled body. A white ash paste was used to cover the body and also to fill the gaps left by the reassembling process. Furthermore, this was used to fill out the person’s normal facial features.

An artist’s depiction of the mummification process. Image source .

The Red Mummy technique was used from about 2500 B.C. to 2000 B.C. This was a completely different method compared to the Black Mummy technique, as the Chinchorros made incisions in the trunk and shoulders of the dead to remove the internal organs and dry the body cavity. To remove the brain, the head was cut off from the body. Like the Black Mummy technique, however, the body was stuffed with various materials in order to make it look more human-like. In addition, sticks were used to provide structural support. The incisions were then sewed up, and the head placed back on the body. A wig, made from tassels of human hair was placed on the head, and held in place by a ‘hat’ made out of black clay. Everything else, apart from this wig, and often the face, would then be painted with red ochre.

A Chinchorro mummy. Image source .

The Chinchorro mummies 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.

One of most impressive features of the Chinchorros mummies is the scale at which it was done. 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.

One explanation for this egalitarian funerary practice is climate change. As the Atacama Desert is one of the driest places on earth, corpses would have been preserved naturally. Moreover, as the Chinchorros buried their dead in shallow graves, it is likely that the bodies were partially exposed by winds. As the level of seawater increased around 6000 to 7000 years ago, the amount of marine resources also increased, which in turn supported a larger population. As the group size increased, there would be a greater exchange of ideas, leading to more prosperity and cultural complexity, one of them would be the practice of mummification. Perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of the Chinchorros is that, based on the available evidence, it appears that social hierarchy was not developed, unlike other early civilisations. How this culture managed to remain egalitarian for many millennia and function at a social level without hierarchy is something that has intrigued archaeologists and anthropologists for decades. Research into this aspect of their culture is ongoing.

Featured image: Head of a Chinchorro mummy . Photo source: This is Chile .

By Ḏḥwty


What Have the World’s Oldest Mummies Kept Under Wraps?

Roughly 2,000 years before the Egyptians began mummifying their dead, the people belonging to the Chinchorro culture had already developed fairly sophisticated methods for embalming. Now, reports Giovanna Fleitas at the Associated France-Presse, researchers are using medical technology to help unravel the history of these preserved corpses.

Fifteen of the mummies, many of them infants and children, were recently transported to the Los Condes clinic in Santiago, where researchers examined them using a CT scanner to study their fragile forms without inflicting damage. “We collected thousands of images with a precision of less than one millimeter,” chief radiologist Marcelo Galvez tells Fleitas. “The next phase is to try to dissect these bodies virtually, without touching them, which will help us preserve them for another 500,000 years.”

The researchers also hope to digitally reconstruct facial features and musculature of the mummies to reveal what they looked like in life. They also took skin and hair sample for DNA testing, which they hope will help them link the Chinchorro mummies to a modern day population in South America.

The Chinchorro culture as a whole is a bit of a mystery to modern archaeologists. It is believed that the people fished, hunted and gathered, living along the coast of the Atacama Desert in what is now northern Chile and southern Peru. Aside from mummifying their dead, people belonging to the Chinchorro culture are known for fashioning fishing hooks out of polished shells, sunk with the assistance of a stone weight.

The mummies they created, however, differed from those preserved by the ancient Egyptians. Fleitas explains that the Chinchorro would remove the skin of the deceased then carefully extract the muscles and organs exposing the skeleton. They would then fill out the body with plants, clay and wood before sewing the skin back on and covering the face with a mask.

But there is still much to learn about these ancient preserved beings—and time is becoming increasingly short. University of Tarapaca museum curator Mariela Santos began noticing in recent years that the skin of some of the 100 mummies in her collection were decomposing, turning into a black ooze reports Chris Kraul at The LA Times. The museum called in Ralph Mitchell, an artifact curator from Harvard, who cultured the bacteria on the mummies.

What he found is that common skin microorganisms that are normally benign in the dry desert climate of the Atacama had begun consuming the mummies’ collagen due to an increasingly humid climate in the northern regions. New mummies found at excavation sites near Arica are already showing signs of deterioration mummies found in the�s, which were initially intact, have begun “melting” in the last decade.

“How broad a phenomenon this is, we don’t really know. The Arica case is the first example I know of deterioration caused by climate change,” Mitchell tells Kraul. “But there is no reason to think it is not damaging heritage materials everywhere. It's affecting everything else.”

Conservators are currently experimenting with combinations of humidity and temperature to help preserve the mummies, Kraul reports. Vivien Standen, an anthropology professor at Tarapaca and expert on the Chinchorro is not hopeful. “I’m not optimistic we can save them,” she tells Kraul. “From the moment they are taken out of the ground, they start deteriorating.”

A new $56 million museum, which will include the mummies, is slated to open in 2020, Kraul reports. The hope is that they can slow or halt the degradation by encasing each of the bodies in its own temperature- and humidity-controlled cube.

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.


Climate Change May Have Led to Earliest South American Mummies

A couple of thousand years before the Egyptians preserved some of their dead, a much simpler society made the first known mummies.

The Chinchorros, the first mummy makers, lived about 7,000 years ago in South America, on the coast near the border between modern-day Peru and Chile. The desert area where they lived was so dry, dead people turned into mummies naturally.

The Chinchorro culture straddled the coastline along what is now the border of Chile and Peru

“Once you die, you stay around,” says Chilean ecologist Pablo Marquet, who studies the Chinchorros and the area where they lived. “You don’t disappear because of the decomposition that happens in many other environments.”

At some point, the Chinchorros stopped leaving it to nature, and began mummifying their dead. They started dressing them up with wigs, clay and paint.

A few years ago, Marquet joined archaeologists and paleoanthropologists to answer that central question.

What they did know was that the early Chinchorros were hunter-gatherers. They did bury their dead, but in shallow graves only about a foot or two from the surface. It took only a little erosion for these dead people to be revealed.

Rather than preserving flesh, the Chinchorro people used a paste of manganese-infused ash to sculpt “bodies” on top of defleshed skeletons, whose internal organs had been replaced with earth.

“[In] most other populations, the dead disappear and become recycled back into the system,” Marquet says, “but here they stay around.”

The living also encountered the dead when they dug new graves. Diseases and arsenic poisoning from drinking water were rampant, adding up to a lot of corpses on the landscape. In fact, Marquet and his team calculated that the average person would encounter these natural mummies at least hundreds of times in a lifetime.

“The question was why they started to mummify their dead, and I think the key insight came from the observation of their environment,” Marquet says.

He says he thinks seeing all these mummies inspired the Chinchorros’ death rituals. His team also looked at data about the climate thousands of years ago.

“We started seeing the data, and everything was like aligning perfectly,” he says. “We couldn’t believe it.”

According to the data, it appears the Chinchorros started preserving and decorating corpses during a time their climate was wetter. There would be more water and more seafood around to support a bigger population. Artifacts from that era confirm that the population surged around this time.

“If you have more individuals in a population and they start interacting, it is more likely that new ideas will emerge, and once new ideas emerge they will spread faster,” Marquet says.

The grave of two adult and two infant Chinchorro mummies, possibly part of the same family. Archaeologists believe that the Chinchorros may have mummified their dead as a way of coping with the persistence of their ancestors’ bodies in the arid Atacama Desert.

The idea is that the more hospitable environment gave people more free time. They no longer needed all their time for hunting and gathering. They had time to care for their dead and to pass on their embalming techniques to others.

The findings appear in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

These mummies haven’t revealed all their secrets yet. Researchers are still trying to explain why infants and fetuses were among the South American mummies other cultures reserved this treatment for their elite.


Review

Origin of T. cruzi

Phylogenetic analysis of 18S rRNA sequences indicates that salivarian trypanosomes (the T. brucei clade grouping those trypanosomes that are transmitted by bites) diverged from the stercorarian trypanosomes (T. cruzi clade grouping those trypanosomes that are transmitted by faecal contamination) approximately 100 million years ago [10]. As at the same time South America, Antarctica and Australia separated from Africa, it was suggested that T. cruzi and related trypanosomes evolved in isolation in early terrestrial mammals [11]. This idea is known as the southern super-continent hypothesis. Based on this scenario one would expect a high diversity of T. cruzi clade trypanosomes in South American terrestrial mammals provided that they had been present on the continent since the break up the southern super-continent 40 million years ago [11]. However, this is not the case. No bona fide species have been discovered in the T. cruzi clade from any South American terrestrial mammal to date [11], i.e., no co-evolution generating host species specific genotypes has occurred. In addition, as T. cruzi clade trypanosomes are also present in land mammals from Africa and Australia [11], the role of geographical isolation in the evolution of T. cruzi is questionable.

Recent molecular evidence indicates that T. cruzi has evolved from a bat trypanosome, a scenario known as the bat seeding hypothesis [11]. This idea is supported by the fact that the closest genetically characterised relative of T. cruzi is T. marinkellei from South American bats [10, 12–14]. Both diverged approximately 6.5-8.5 million year ago [15, 16] and could be regarded as subspecies (i.e. T. c. cruzi and T. c. marinkellei) [17]. The recently described T. erneyi and T. livingstonei found in bats from Mozambique [18, 19], and T. dionisii from Old and New World bats [10, 12, 14, 20] are also close relatives of T. cruzi. Moreover, T. cruzi has been detected in South American bats [12, 21, 22] with one specific genotype, TcBat, only found in bats so far [23]. TcBat is most closely related to T. cruzi TcI which primarily is associated with opossums and conenose bugs of the genus Rhodnius in arboreal ecotopes [11]. Based on these facts it is reasonable to suppose that the common ancestor of the members of the T. cruzi clade was a bat trypanosome. Presumably, trypanosome-infected bats have colonised South America about 7-10 million years ago via North America [24]. Then, various independent bat trypanosome lineages switched from bats into terrestrial mammals probably facilitated by invertebrate vectors feeding on both bats and terrestrial mammals living in the same arboreal ecotopes [10]. One such switch gave rise to T. cruzi in the Pliocene [25]. The diversification of T. cruzi into the current DTU lineages TcI-TcVI and TcBat started quite recent about 1-3 million years ago [25].

Pre-Columbian time

There is evidence that soon after having populated South America humans became infected with T. cruzi. The earliest detection of a T. cruzi infection in a human comes from a 9000 year old Chinchorro mummy through PCR amplification of kinetoplasid DNA sequences [26]. The Chinchorros were the first people identified to settle along South American’s coastal region of the Atacama Desert in southern Peru and northern Chile. T. cruzi infections were also found in mummies of subsequent cultures that succeeded the Chinchorros and were living in the same area up to the time of the Spanish conquest in the 16 th century [26]. The prevalence rate for T. cruzi infection in these populations was 41% without any significant differences among the individual cultures indicating that already in pre-Columbian time Chagas disease was widely spread in civilised societies [26]. Infections with T. cruzi were also detected in human remains from other archaeological excavation sites in America [27]. For example, T. cruzi DNA was found in a 560 year old partially mummified human body and in a 4,500-7,000 year old human bone fragment both unearthed in the Peruaçu Valley in the State of Minas Gerais, Brazil [28, 29]. Another case of a prehistoric T. cruzi infection was reported in a 1,150 year old mummy recovered from the Chihuahuan Desert near the Rio Grande in Texas [27]. In addition to the detection of T. cruzi in human remains, several exhumed mummies also showed clinical signs of Chagas disease [26–28, 30]. Further evidence of American trypanosomiasis in Pre-Columbian times comes from Peruvian ceramics dated to the 13 th -16 th centuries showing possible representations of Chagas disease [31]. This also included a head with a unilateral swelling of the eyelid reminiscent of the Romaña’s sign [31].

Based on the paleoparasitological data, it has been hypothesised that Chagas disease originated in the Andean region [32]. It is believed that the Chinchorro people were the first to leave a nomadic lifestyle and to settle down to start arable farming and livestock breeding [26, 30, 31]. Upon settlement, prehistoric people intruded and participate in the sylvatic cycle of T. cruzi, and gradually a domestic cycle of transmission of Chagas disease emerged [26, 31, 32]. The development of a domestic T. cruzi transmission cycle was facilitated by the ability of some species of triatomine bugs, in particular T. infestans, to adapt easily to more open vegetation and to develop a preference for human dwellings over time [33]. In this context, it is important to note that the establishment of agricultural settlements usually involves some degree of deforestation. Crucially, deforestation is strongly linked to an increase in the prevalence of Chagas disease [33]. This connection is supported by the fact that American trypanosomiasis is absent in the indigenous inhabitants of the Amazon region, who used different socio-environmental patterns of land occupation including open communal huts unfavourable for vector colonisation, continuous mobility, and absence of domestic animals which all together hinder vector transmission of Chagas disease [34].

Modern times

16 th -19 th century

From the 16 th century onwards, there are several accounts by travellers and physicians describing patients with disease symptoms reminiscent of American trypanosomiasis. A first suggestive clinical report relating to possible intestinal symptoms of Chagas disease comes from a book published in 1707 by the Portuguese physician Miguel Diaz Pimenta (1661-1715) [35]. Therein he described a condition, which was known as “bicho”, “that causes the humours to be retained, causing the patient to have little desire to eat”. However, a more detailed analysis of the text suggests that the symptoms described refer more likely to haemorrhoids rather than to the clinical picture of a chagasic megacolon [36]. A clearer account on the megavisceral syndrome of Chagas disease comes from another Portuguese physician, Luís Gomes Ferreira (1686-1764), who wrote in 1735 that “the corruption of bicho is nothing else but an enlargement and distension of the rectum” [37, 38]. Other records described a condition known then as “mal de engasgo” which probably refers to dysphagia, the difficulty in swallowing [39–41]. For example, the Danish physician Theodoro J. H. Langgaard (1813-1884), who emigrated to Brazil in 1842, gave the following characteristic description of the condition: “…usually the food bolus only passes up to the cardia above the stomach. … Some patients are able to force the descent of the food into the stomach by drinking a small amount of water after each mouthful of ingested food. … As a result of the imperfect nutrition the patients begin to lose weight, become emaciated…” [37, 41]. Many more storied references to Chagas disease can be found in an article by Guerra [42]. All these historical accounts indicate that Chagas disease was present in Latin America from the beginning of the 16 th century and that it was affecting indigenous people as well as the conquistadors.

There are also many reports of triatomine bugs long before their role as vector for T. cruzi was discovered (reviewed in [31] and [37]). Probably the most famous account of a kissing bug comes from Charles Darwin (1809-1882). On the 25 th of March 1835 he noted in his diary which he kept during his voyage of The Beagle: “At night I experienced an attack (for it deserves no less a name) of the Benchuca (a species of Reduvius) the great black bug of the Pampas. It is most disgusting to feel soft wingless insects, about an inch long, crawling over one’s body. Before sucking they are quite thin, but afterwards become round and bloated with blood, and in this state they are easily crushed. They are also found in the northern part of Chile and in Peru. One which I caught at Iquique was very empty. When placed on the table, and though surrounded by people, if a finger was presented, the bold insect would immediately draw its sucker, make a charge, and if allowed, draw blood. No pain was caused by the wound. It was curious to watch its body during the act of sucking, as it changed in less than ten minutes, from being as flat as a wafer to a globular form. This one feast, for which the benchuca was indebted to one of the officers, kept it fat during four whole months but, after the first fortnight, the insect was quite ready to have another suck” [43]. Based on this encounter with a kissing bug and his prolonged gastric and nervous symptoms, it was even hypothesised that Darwin was suffering from Chagas disease later in his life. However, Chagas disease is a most unlikely diagnosis for Darwin’s chronic illness as the symptoms abated as he aged, as he did not seem to have any of the typical chagasic symptoms and as he had some of the symptoms already before the Beagle voyage [37]. Despite all these reports, the critical role of triatomine bugs in transmitting Chagas disease remained undiscovered until 1909.

20 th century

In 1908, during an anti-malaria campaign in support of the construction of a railway track in the North of the state of Minas Gerais, the Brazilian hygienist and bacteriologist Carlos Chagas (1879-1934) (Figure 1) was made aware by a railroad engineer of large blood-sucking insects which lived en masse in local dwellings and bit sleeping people preferentially in the face [44]. To see whether these bugs harboured potential pathogens, Chagas dissected them and found numerous trypanosomes in their hindgut which he named T. cruzi in honour of his mentor, the Brazilian physician and bacteriologist Oswaldo Cruz (1872-1917) (Figure 2) [45]. Some infected bugs were sent to Cruz in Rio de Janeiro, where they were allowed to bite marmoset monkeys. Within 20-30 days, the monkeys became infected and many trypanosomes were detected in their blood [44]. Soon afterwards Chagas also discovered that the parasite was infective to several other laboratory animals [44]. Chagas was sure that he had found a pathogenic organism of a human infectious disease but did not know what kind of sickness it was. The breakthrough came in 1909 when he was called to examine a two year old girl named Berenice who was feverish with enlarged spleen and liver and swollen lymph nodes [44]. On first examination, no parasites were found but four days later, on the 14 th of April 1909, numerous trypanosomes were spotted in her blood with similar morphology to those previously detected in infected marmoset monkeys [44]. Chagas had discovered a new human disease which soon bore his name. He gave a detailed clinical description of the acute phase of the disease and linked the infection with some chronic symptoms of the illness which was remarkable considering that the chronic phase of American trypanosomiasis usually appears decades after the first inoculation with T. cruzi (reviewed in [46]). Interestingly, his first patient Berenice never developed determinate chronic Chagas disease and died at the age 73 years on unrelated causes [47]. However, she was infected with T. cruzi for her whole life as was confirmed by the isolation of parasites when she was 55 and 71 years old [47]. In 1912, Chagas reported that he had detected T. cruzi in an armadillo and thus found the first sylvatic reservoir host [48]. Gradually, more and more sylvatic reservoir animals of Chagas disease were discovered providing evidence for an enzootic cycle of T. cruzi.

Carlos Ribeiro Justiniano das Chagas in his laboratory at the Federal Serotherapy Institute in Manguinhos, Rio de Janeiro. The Brazilian hygienist, scientist and bacteriologist identified the protozoan parasite T. cruzi as the causative agent of Chagas disease. Photo taken from Wikimedia Commons.


The 7,000-Year-Old Chinchorro Mummies of the Andes - History

A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America

Making the Dead Beautiful: Mummies as Art December 16, 1998
by Bernardo T. Arriaza, Russell A. Hapke, and Vivien G. Standen
November is the Month of the Dead. The deceased were removed from their graves, redressed with rich garments and feathers. They gave the dead food and drink. The people danced and sang with the dead, parading them around the streets.

--Guamán Poma de Ayala
Nueva Corónica y Buen Gobierno (1615)

The 5,000-year-old remains of a woman, mummified in the black style (given a clay mask coated with black manganese) and surrounded by whalebone were recovered from the site of El Morro in downtown Arica, Chile, in 1983. (© Philippe Plailly/EURELIOS) [LARGER IMAGE]

Missionaries working in Peru following the Spanish conquest were disgusted by the Inka's worshiping the mummified remains of their ancestors. During religious festivals the preserved bodies of Inka lords would be lavishly dressed, publicly displayed, and even given cups of chicha, or corn beer, to toast each other and the living. While such practices were abhorred by the Spanish, they played an integral role in the lives of Andean people for whom death marked not the end of a life but a period of transition during which the souls of the deceased were to be cared for and entertained, easing their passage into the afterlife. In exchange for such hospitality, it was believed that they would intercede with the gods on behalf of the living to ensure fertility and good crops.

The Inka were the last in a long line of Andean peoples to preserve and display the remains of their forebears that began with the Chinchorro, a little known fisherfolk who inhabited a 400-mile stretch of South American coast--from Ilo in southern Peru to Antofagasta in northern Chile--more than 7,000 years ago.

Sometime around the beginning of the fifth millennium B.C. the Chinchorro began mummifying their dead--eviscerating the corpses and defleshing the bones. The skeleton would be reassembled, reinforced with sticks, and internal organs would be replaced with clay, camelid fibers, and dried plants, while muscles would be re-created with thin bundles of wild reeds and sea grasses. The body would then be "reupholstered" with the skin of the deceased, which would have been carefully removed and set aside. Sea lion skin was added to fill any gaps. The entire body was then covered with an ash paste and finished with a coat of shiny black manganese or, in later years, brilliant red ochre. Many of the mummies had clay masks with carefully modeled facial features and clay sexual organs, and wore elaborate clay helmets or wigs of human hair some two feet in length. So far some 282 Chinchorro "mummies" have been found at cemeteries such as El Morro, Camarones Cove, and Patillos. Of these, 149 were created by Chinchorro artisan-morticians the rest were naturally desiccated by in the hot, dry sand of the Atacama Desert.

The earliest known mummy, that of a child from a site in the Camarones Valley, 60 miles south of Arica, dates to ca. 5050 B.C. During the next 3,500 years Chinchorro mummification evolved through three distinct styles--black, red, and mud-coated--before the practice died out sometime in the first century B.C.

A diorama on view at the Museo Arqueologico San Miguel de Azapa shows the Chilean coast and the daily activities of fishermen at the end of the Chinchorro period some 2,000 years ago. (© Philippe Plailly/EURELIOS) [LARGER IMAGE]

The black style (ca. 5050-2500 B.C.), was by far the most complex. The body was completely dismembered and reassembled with all but the bones and skin replaced by clay, reeds, and various stuffing materials. A mask of clay incised with small slits for the eyes and mouth was placed over the face to give the body the impression of a peaceful slumber. In a technical sense, a black mummy, with its bone and wood inner frame, intermediate and ash paste layers, and external covering of human and sea lion skin was more like a statue than a mummy, a work of art. Today these mummies are extremely fragile due to the disintegration of the unbaked clay.

About 2500 B.C., black went out of fashion, perhaps reflecting a change in ideology. It is also possible that manganese became scarce. For the next five centuries the bodies were finished with red ochre, which is found in abundance near Arica. The mummification process also changed. The corpses were not totally disarticulated as they were with the black mummies. Instead, the head was removed to extract the brain while neat incisions were made on the arms, legs, and abdomen to remove muscles and internal organs, which were replaced with reeds, clay, sticks, and llama fur. After the body was filled out, incisions were sutured with human hair using a cactus spine needle. The body cavities in many red mummies show signs of burning, suggesting that they had been dried with glowing coals. With the red style also came a change in the sculpting of the clay face masks. Open mouths and eyes convey a sense of alertness rather than sleep. The open mouth may foreshadow the Inka practice of feeding and talking to the ancestors. It may have also served to ease the return of the soul should it wish to reinhabit the body.

A group of mummies excavated at the El Morro-1 site in 1983 includes two adults and three children. The adults and two of the children were mummified in the black style some 5,000 years ago. The child, at bottom, was mummified in the red style a millennium later. (© Philippe Plailly/EURELIOS) [LARGER IMAGE]

By the end of the third millennium, complex mummification had ceased among the Chinchorro and bodies were simply desiccated, covered with a thick layer of mud, and buried.

Wear and tear, especially on the black and red mummies, as well as extensive repairs and repainting, suggest that they may have been displayed in family or communal shrines or used in processions for many years before being interred in groups of four, five, or six individuals, likely related. Few burial goods were placed in the graves, but most objects present were associated with fishing--harpoons, shell and cactus fishhooks, weights, and basketry.

Why did these ancient people go to such extraordinary lengths to preserve their dead? Though we have no written records of the ancient Chinchorro, we believe that their relationship with the dead was much like that of their Inka descendants, the mummies providing that vital link between this world and the next. But these well-preserved remains may have served another purpose as well. We believe that they represent the earliest form of religious art found in the Americas.

The hand of a child, naturally mummified, is wrapped with reeds. (© Philippe Plailly/EURELIOS) [LARGER IMAGE]

It is not surprising that the Chinchorro mummies have not been viewed as works of art, but as an unusual mortuary expression of an early Andean people. In many cultures icons exist as part of propitiation rites rather than as items to be collected. Religious art is then the expression of the believers attempting to reach the gods. The symbolism in religious art is context-specific, often associated with mythical heroes, deities, or ancestors. However, the icon is often not as important as what it represents.

How then do the Chinchorro mummies fit this paradigm of religious art? We see the black and red Chinchorro mummies as art because of the plasticity of their shapes, colors, and the mixed media used in their creation. These statues, the encased skeletons of departed ones, became sacred objects to be tended and revered by Chinchorro mourners.

Leticia Latorre Orrego inspects the remains of an infant mummified in the black style. This mummy was exhumed from the El Morro-1 site in 1983. (© Philippe Plailly/EURELIOS) [LARGER IMAGE]

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Chinchorro mortuary practice was the democracy with which it was carried out. In contrast to the Egyptians, who mummified kings and nobility, the Chinchorro show no discrimination in age, sex, or social status in the mummification of their dead. The mummification of children is particularly fascinating, since in cultures throughout the world they receive little if any mortuary attention, especially those who never lived--the stillborn. The Chinchorro seemed to honor all human beings whether they contributed to society or not, paying particular attention to those who never achieved their potential. In the minds of the Chinchorro, life as a mummy may have been viewed as a second chance.

The Chinchorro mummies deserve much more attention than they have received from scholars, not only because they are now the oldest examples of intentionally mummified human remains, but because they are powerful artistic accomplishments of an ancient society.

Laboratory assistant Leticia Latorre Orrego of the Museo Arqueologico San Miguel de Azapa catalogs remains recovered in 1997 during the construction of a train depot in Arica. (© Philippe Plailly/EURELIOS) [LARGER IMAGE]

Bernardo T. Arriaza is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas and an adjunct researcher at the Universidad de Tarapacá, Arica, Chile. He is the author of Beyond Death: The Chinchorro Mummies of Ancient Chile (Smithsonian Institution Press, 1995). Russell A. Hapke, a graduate of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, is director of Branson Illustrations, Co. Vivien G. Standen is a professor and researcher at the Museo Arqueologico San Miguel de Azapa, Universidad de Tarapaca, Arica, Chile. She has extensively studied the Chinchorro mummies of the El Morro-1 site. This research was in part supported by Fondecyt grant No. 1970525 and by National Geographic Society grant No. 5712-96.

Arriaza, B. Beyond Death: The Chinchorro Mummies of Ancient Chile. Smithsonian Institution Press, 1995. In the first book written in English about the Chinchorro culture, the author reconstructs daily life, and challenges our assumption that preceramic cultures had a simple socioreligious life.

Allison, M. "Chile's Ancient Mummies." Natural History 94:10 (1995), pp. 74-81. Describes the events that led to the discovery of the Chinchorro mummies in 1983 and discusses mummification techniques and health.

Standen, V. "Temprana complejidad funeraria de la cultura Chinchorro (norte de Chile)." Latin American Antiquity 8:2 (1997), pp.134-156. Presents a detailed bioarchaeological study of the El Morro-1 site in Arica.

During the nineteenth century, mummies from the Andes were exhibited in Paris, where they inspired European artists to new heights. The crouched position of Inka mummies inspired Paul Gauguin's figures in the famous paintings Life and Death and Eve. The "expression of agony" in them, which is a normal phenomenon, did not escape the eyes of Norwegian artist Edvard Munch, who immortalized the expression in a series of paintings entitled The Scream.


Centuries of Poison-Laced Water Gave These People a Tolerance to Arsenic

Any crime drama connoisseur can tell you: arsenic is a killer. At high doses, it can lead to skin lesions, liver damage, cancers, multi-organ failure and cardiac arrest. But most instances of arsenic poisoning don’t come from a murder plot. Rather, the naturally occurring toxin most typically enters the body through environmental or occupational exposure.

That’s the case for one remote village in the Andes, where arsenic leaches into the drinking water from volcanic bedrock below. When tested, the water in San Antonio de los Cobres was found to contain 20 times the level of arsenic deemed safe by the World Health Organization. And this isn’t a new development: analyses of 400- toه,000-year-old mummies from the region have shown evidence of high arsenic levels in their hair.

So, how have residents been able to survive for centuries at the site? As a new study indicates, the key is in their genes.

A team of scientists analyzed the DNA of 124 women from the northern Argentina village and discovered that “about a quarter of the population had picked up a cluster of mutations in the gene that processes arsenic into a less toxic form,” NPR reports. The genetic difference allows villagers to more quickly process the poison, thereby flushing it from their system faster than the average person. The researchers speculate that those with this genetically-enhanced arsenic tolerance were more likely to survive and pass the trait on to their descendants.

Researchers still aren’t completely sure how the mutation works within the body, and they haven’t yet performed testing on arsenic’s specific effects on the population of San Antonio de los Cobres. But, though genetic mutations providing protection from arsenic are found in peoples all over the world, this study is the first to show “evidence of a population uniquely adapted to tolerate the toxic chemical,” Oxford University Press reports.

This little village isn’t the only locale dealing with naturally high arsenic levels. As Newsweek notes, “more than 100 million people are exposed to elevated levels of arsenic in their drinking water.” Though the U.S. has regulations and testing to prevent unsafe levels of the toxin in water, it still exists in mostly small concentrations in certain regions. To see where in the country trace elements are present, check out this map drawn up by the U.S. Geological Survey. 

About Laura Clark

Laura Clark is a writer and editor based in Pittsburgh. She's a blogger with Smart News and a senior editor at Pitt magazine.


An Unlikely Driver of Evolution: Arsenic

Around 11,000 years ago, humans first set foot in the driest place on Earth.

The Atacama Desert straddles the Andes Mountains, reaching into parts of Chile, Peru, Bolivia and Argentina. Little rain falls on the desert — some spots haven’t received a single drop in recorded history.

But the people who arrived at the Atacama managed to turn it into a home. Some Atacameños, as they are known today, fished the Pacific. Others hunted game and herded livestock in the highlands. They mummified their dead, decorating them with ceremonial wigs before leaving them in the mountains.

Those mummies reveal a hidden threat in the Atacama. When scientists analyzed the hair in 7,000-year-old mummy wigs, they discovered high levels of arsenic. Through their lives, the Atacameños were gradually poisoned.

Arsenic can poison people today through exposure to pesticides and pollution. But arsenic is also naturally present in the water and soil in some parts of the world. The Atacama Desert, sitting on top of arsenic-rich volcanic rock, is one of them. The concentration of arsenic in Atacama drinking water can be 20 times higher than the level considered safe for human consumption.

Now a team of scientists has discovered that the arsenic of the Atacama Desert didn’t just make people sick. It also spurred their evolution.

In a new study in the journal Molecular Biology and Evolution, researchers report that over the years the Atacameños became more resistant to arsenic, thanks to natural selection. It is the first documented case of natural selection in humans for a defense against an environmental poison.

Jonathan K. Pritchard, a geneticist at Stanford University who was not involved in the study, called the results “convincing” and a new addition to “a very small number of known human selection signals.”

The liver defends the body against arsenic by tacking on extra carbon and hydrogen atoms to the element. Those extra atoms make arsenic less toxic and easier to draw out of the bloodstream in the kidneys, so that it can be flushed out of the body with urine.

In the late 1990s, researchers discovered that most Atacameños detoxify arsenic at an unusually high rate. Recently a group of researchers in Sweden went searching for the genes that make the Atacameños so unusual.

The scientists collected urine and blood from women in a village in Argentina called San Antonio de los Cobres. Levels of arsenic in their urine were used to determine how well each woman’s body detoxified the poison.

The scientists also sequenced over a million short segments of DNA in the women’s genomes. They looked for genetic variants shared by the women able to rid themselves of arsenic most efficiently.

These women all shared a distinctive stretch of DNA on chromosome 10, the scientists found. That stretch contains a gene called AS3MT, which encodes a liver enzyme that helps detoxify poisons.

“It’s a confirmation that this gene is really, really important for arsenic excretion,” said Mattias Jakobsson, a professor of genetics at Uppsala University and a co-author of the new study.

Dr. Jakobsson and his colleagues then compared the DNA in people from San Antonio de los Cobres with DNA from people in Peru and Colombia who don’t have to drink arsenic-laced water. For the most part, their DNA was nearly identical. There was only one major difference: the stretch of DNA that contains the AS3MT gene. About 70 percent of people in San Antonio de los Cobres have the variant that lets them resist arsenic.

When people first arrived in the Atacama Desert, the scientists concluded, a few of them carried this mutation. Because there was no way to avoid ingesting arsenic, the mutation immediately became important to their survival.

“If you settle in this area and there is one stream, there aren’t many options for getting water,” said Karin Broberg, a geneticist at the Karolinska Institute and a co-author of the study.

The Atacameños began to suffer from chronic arsenic poisoning, which can lead to cancer, skin lesions, and a weakening of the immune system in babies. The people who carried the protective mutation were able to detoxify the arsenic faster, perhaps by making extra copies of the AS3MT enzyme.

“It’s not a magic cure,” said Dr. Jakobsson. “If you have the protective variant, you’re not going to have a perfect life drinking a lot of arsenic. But the effects are probably smaller.”

That difference meant that people with the mutation survived to have more children than people who lacked it. Over thousands of years, natural selection made it more common.

Scientists have documented several cases in which humans have experienced strong natural selection over the past thousands of years. In some parts of Africa, some individuals evolved resistance to malaria. In northwestern Europe and elsewhere, natural selection favored genes that let adults digest milk. In Tibet, it favored genes for survival at high altitudes.

The new study on the Atacameños, by contrast, shows that toxic chemicals can also drive human evolution.

Understanding how it happened may help guide public health measures to reduce the suffering caused by arsenic poisoning, which threatens an estimated 200 million people worldwide. And it can also help scientists understand how we detoxify chemicals like arsenic, a process that is still fairly mysterious.

“If you find a signal of natural selection, then you know this has been a huge issue for human survival in the past,” Dr. Jakobsson said.


Landscape of Dead Bodies May Have Inspired First Mummies

Trekking through Chile's Atacama Desert 7000 years ago, hunter-gatherers known as the Chinchorro walked in the land of the dead. Thousands of shallowly buried human bodies littered the earth, their leathery corpses pockmarking the desolate surroundings. According to new research, the scene inspired the Chinchorro to begin mummifying their dead, a practice they adopted roughly 3000 years before the Egyptians embraced it.

Archaeologists have long studied how the Chinchorro made their mummies, the first in history, says ecologist Pablo Marquet of the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile in Santiago. After removing the skin to be dried, the hunter-gatherers scooped out the organs and stuffed the body with clay, dried plants, and sticks. Once they reattached the skin, embalmers painted the mummy shiny black or red and put a black wig on its head. Covering the corpses' faces were clay masks, some molded into an open-mouthed expression that later inspired Edvard Munch's famous painting The Scream.

Few scientists have tackled the mystery of why the Chinchorro started to mummify their dead in the first place. Complicated cultural practices such as mummification, Marquet says, tend to arise only in large, sedentary populations. The more people you have in one place, the more opportunity for innovation, development, and the spread of new ideas. The Chinchorro don't fit that mold. As nomadic hunter-gatherers, they formed groups of about only 100 people.

To solve the mystery, Marquet and his colleagues needed to go back in time. Using data from ice cores in the Andes, the researchers reconstructed the climate of the region where the Chinchorro lived: the northern coast of Chile and the southern coast of Peru, along the western edge of the Atacama Desert. Before 7000 years ago, the area was extremely arid, the team found, but then it went through a wetter period that lasted until about 4000 years ago. Analyses of carbon-dated Chinchorro artifacts, such as shell piles (known as middens) and mummies, suggest that the rainier conditions supported a larger population, peaking about 6000 years ago.

The team calculated, based on the demographics of hunter-gatherers, that a single Chinchorro group of roughly 100 people would produce about 400 corpses every century. These corpses, shallowly buried and exposed to the arid Atacama climate, would not have decomposed, but lingered. Given that the Chinchorro settled the Atacama coast roughly 10,000 years ago, the researchers argue that by the time the practice of mummification started about 7000 years ago, a staggering number of bodies would have piled up. A single person was likely to see several thousand naturally mummified bodies during his or her lifetime, the team reports online today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The number increased over the years, until mummies "became part of the landscape," Marquet says.

This constant exposure to natural mummies may have led to a cult of the dead involving artificial mummification. "The dead have a huge impact on the living," Marquet says, citing work by psychologists and sociologists that shows that exposure to dead bodies produces tangible psychological and social effects, often leading to religious practices. "There's a conflict between how you think of someone alive and dead," he says. Religious practices and ideas—such as funerals, wakes, and the belief in ghosts—help resolve that conflict. "Imagine living in the barren desert with barely anything, just sand and stone," he says. Barely anything, that is, except for hundreds, if not thousands, of dead bodies that never decay. One would feel "compelled somehow to relate" to the corpses, he says, speculating that the Chinchorro made mummies in order to come to terms with the continued presence of their dead. When the climate turned dry again and food supplies dwindled, Marquet says, the population dropped. The complex Chinchorro embalming practices also petered out around that time.

Vicki Cassman, an anthropologist and art conservator at the University of Delaware, Newark, who specializes in Andean archaeology, says she's impressed with the study's multidisciplinary approach and agrees that this could explain the Chinchorro practice of mummification. Applying an ecological population model to explain the development of mummification is a fresh approach and "as convincing an argument as we have been able to get to date." However, she says, our understanding of the ideological complexity that led to Chinchorro mummies still needs "fleshing out." "I know," she jokes. "Bad pun."

Emily Underwood

Emily is a contributing correspondent for Science, covering neuroscience.


Mummies, moai make Chile magical

Soon after exploring sacred sites of the beyond-bizarre Birdman Cult, I found myself again in stony awe. I was on perhaps the remotest inhabited island on Earth — dinky Easter Island — where a gaggle of ancient, far-famed stone-carved huge-headed “moai” statues blankly stared into space, a color-frenzied setting sun turning them supernaturally spectacular. (I was the size of one of their ears.)

If their pursed lips could talk, they’d tell about this isle’s wacky history of tribal warfare, long-fingernailed “Birdman” rulers and maybe cannibalism, but instead they mutely gazed atop stone altars on a grassy coastal plain, their backs to cobalt seas spraying against black lava rocks. To add to the this-can’t-be-real factor, a half-dozen of the island’s many friendly, well-fed stray dogs romped with each other in front of the hallowed megaliths. Then several wild stallions, manes flowing, galloped by hundreds of horses roam freely among the moai.

Moai and mummies. That’s what yanked me to two vastly different destinations in Chile. Before flying to globally known, Polynesian-flair Easter Island, I traveled to Chile’s little-known most northern city, Arica, to see the world’s oldest mummies and walk over glass atop an unearthed graveyard of an extinct people. In Easter Island, the marquee draw is 887 moai statues who still spellbindingly loom throughout the windswept unspoiled terrain.

This was a journey into two mystery-shrouded cultures. The prehistoric Chinchorro fisherfolk on mainland Chile elaborately mummified every dead soul in their society for reasons unknown. And on Easter Island, Rapa Nui natives between A.D. 1000 and 1600 deified VIP ancestors by chiseling statues up to 33 feet tall and 80 tons and somehow lugging them miles to ceremonial platforms, both brain-boggling feats.

The moai, Easter Island

There’s a mystical pull on this tantalizing South Pacific tropical outpost — it could be from its revered magnetic boulder, the “Navel of the World.” Or because Easter Island, which locals call by its Polynesian name, Rapa Nui, is in the blissful boonies. (To get here, it takes a six-hour, once-daily flight from Chile’s capital, Santiago. Before that, you’ll spend a day flying to Santiago from San Diego.)

Annexed by Chile in 1888, Easter Island — named by Europeans who dropped anchor that holiday in 1722 — is a scene-stealing, 63-square-mile wide-open expanse of Ireland-reminiscent green pastures, rolling hills and occasional cows blocking roads. The only town, funky Hanga Roa, is basically two parallel streets, one abutting the pristine, jagged-cliff coast where you’ll tread past a rustic cemetery adorned by a sculpted wood rooster before coming upon a grouping of moai. A lone sentinel has been restored with peering white coral eyes.

“When the eyes were put in, the moai came alive and had the spiritual power,” my guide Ata said. “They had their backs to the ocean so they could watch over and protect the villages.”

My neck hair rose at the volcanic quarry where nearly 400 moai remain scattered in various stages of completion, just as when, who knows why, they were abandoned by obsessive craftsmen 500 years ago. Like a freaky moai memorial garden, some tiki-ish behemoths are buried by erosion up to their shoulders. Apparently, moai went from representing exalted ancestors to being pure ego trips — an unfinished moai that probably took 20 years of labor measured seven stories. No wonder things turned ugly. The Rapa Nui had deforested the island, and with food and water scarce, clans began warring and possibly eating each other. They knocked down rival tribes’ moai, decapitating statues and gouging out the all-potent eyes.

Enter the Birdman Cult. Yep, this lost civilization gets kookier. To stop the killing and choose a ruler, each clan picked a competitor who raced each other to find the season’s first sooty tern egg. “They had to jump off a steep cliff and then swim in shark-infested waters. Many died,” said our guide. We were looking out from the cult’s petroglyph-adorned Orongo ceremonial village to the islet where the winner strapped the egg in a tiny basket around his forehead before swimming back. His patron became the Birdman to look the part, that guy shaved his head and grew his fingernails to mimic claws.

The next day, we were bowled over by the blockbuster — Ahu Tongariki’s 15 furrowed-brow, volcanic-gray, tsunami-surviving rock stars backlit by a brilliant blue sky (one moai oddly resembled Richard Nixon). As if this island hadn’t already possessed me, when I returned that night to the energy-ooming Hangaroa Eco Village & Spa — it is styled after the Birdman Cult’s stone ceremonial village — I ran into three chestnut-colored wild horses trotting past the moonlit pool. You can’t begin to dream this stuff up.

The mummies, Arica

I’m mesmerized by mummies. So before Easter Island, I journeyed to an authentic region of Chile near Bolivia and Peru and gazed at archaeological A-listers — clay-coated 7,000-year-old beings, some with open mouths reminiscent of Edvard Munch’s acclaimed painting “The Scream.” The mummies of South America’s Chinchorro culture — up for UNESCO World Heritage consideration — are the oldest on Earth, predating the Egyptians by 2,000 years, and so insanely intricate they’re considered mortician works of art. In the laid-back coastal city of Arica, mummies have been dug up all over the place.

What makes them so significant is that the Chinchorro sophisticatedly prepared everyone, including miscarried fetuses, for their afterlife (the Egyptians only mummified kings and the elite). And what a process — as far back as 5000 B.C., the Chinchorro removed the dearly departed’s brains and organs, stuffed their insides with grass, ash and animal hair, used sticks to strengthen the body, delicately reattached their skin, affixed a wig of human hair, applied a clay paste and painted the body black. You can see 120 mummies (some parts so preserved, fleshy fingers are intact) at the University of Tarapaca’s well-designed Museo Arqueologico. Scholars suggest the mummies may have been worshipped as ancestors or displayed by relatives who interacted with them.

Elsewhere in town, I walked on a glass floor over the remains of 32 Chinchorro men, women and babies lying in dirt in their graveyard. Items to be used in the hereafter, such as vegetable fiber mats, shell fishing hooks and seabird feathers, accompanied them. The millenniums-old mummies, many rotted to skeletons, were discovered in 2004 when a colonial house was being excavated for a hotel. Too fragile to be moved, they now comprise the university’s Museo de Sitio Colon 10.

To see more of Chile (sans mummies), I’d adventure out from Arica, traveling hours by car on dusty, two-lane Highway 11 through arid landscapes dotted with llamas, alpacas, camel-like vicuñas, rare “candelabra cactus” and sleepy Andean villages. I gasped (14,820 feet altitude!) at the beauty of Lake Chungara, ringed by majestic snow-capped volcanoes reflected in mirrored waters. A perfect respite before jetting to enigmatic Easter Island and pondering if multi-ton moai could’ve “walked” to their anointed spots.


Chinchorro Mummies: Bodies 'Littered The Earth' In Chile's Atacama Desert 7,000 Years Ago, Study Says

Trekking through Chile's Atacama Desert 7000 years ago, hunter-gatherers known as the Chinchorro walked in the land of the dead. Thousands of shallowly buried human bodies littered the earth, their leathery corpses pockmarking the desolate surroundings. According to new research, the scene inspired the Chinchorro to begin mummifying their dead, a practice they adopted roughly 3000 years before the Egyptians embraced it.

Archaeologists have long studied how the Chinchorro made their mummies, the first in history, says ecologist Pablo Marquet of the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile in Santiago. After removing the skin to be dried, the hunter-gatherers scooped out the organs and stuffed the body with clay, dried plants, and sticks. Once they reattached the skin, embalmers painted the mummy shiny black or red and put a black wig on its head. Covering the corpses' faces were clay masks, some molded into an open-mouthed expression that later inspired Edvard Munch's famous painting The Scream .

Few scientists have tackled the mystery of why the Chinchorro started to mummify their dead in the first place. Complicated cultural practices such as mummification, Marquet says, tend to arise only in large, sedentary populations. The more people you have in one place, the more opportunity for innovation, development, and the spread of new ideas. The Chinchorro don't fit that mold. As nomadic hunter-gatherers, they formed groups of about only 100 people.

To solve the mystery, Marquet and his colleagues needed to go back in time. Using data from ice cores in the Andes, the researchers reconstructed the climate of the region where the Chinchorro lived: the northern coast of Chile and the southern coast of Peru, along the western edge of the Atacama Desert. Before 7000 years ago, the area was extremely arid, the team found, but then it went through a wetter period that lasted until about 4000 years ago. Analyses of carbon-dated Chinchorro artifacts, such as shell piles (known as middens) and mummies, suggest that the rainier conditions supported a larger population, peaking about 6000 years ago.

The team calculated, based on the demographics of hunter-gatherers, that a single Chinchorro group of roughly 100 people would produce about 400 corpses every century. These corpses, shallowly buried and exposed to the arid Atacama climate, would not have decomposed, but lingered. Given that the Chinchorro settled the Atacama coast roughly 10,000 years ago, the researchers argue that by the time the practice of mummification started about 7000 years ago, a staggering number of bodies would have piled up. A single person was likely to see several thousand naturally mummified bodies during his or her lifetime, the team reports online today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences . The number increased over the years, until mummies "became part of the landscape," Marquet says.

This constant exposure to natural mummies may have led to a cult of the dead involving artificial mummification. "The dead have a huge impact on the living," Marquet says, citing work by psychologists and sociologists that shows that exposure to dead bodies produces tangible psychological and social effects, often leading to religious practices. "There's a conflict between how you think of someone alive and dead," he says. Religious practices and ideas—such as funerals, wakes, and the belief in ghosts—help resolve that conflict. "Imagine living in the barren desert with barely anything, just sand and stone," he says. Barely anything, that is, except for hundreds, if not thousands, of dead bodies that never decay. One would feel "compelled somehow to relate" to the corpses, he says, speculating that the Chinchorro made mummies in order to come to terms with the continued presence of their dead. When the climate turned dry again and food supplies dwindled, Marquet says, the population dropped. The complex Chinchorro embalming practices also petered out around that time.

Vicki Cassman, an anthropologist and art conservator at the University of Delaware, Newark, who specializes in Andean archaeology, says she's impressed with the study's multidisciplinary approach and agrees that this could explain the Chinchorro practice of mummification. Applying an ecological population model to explain the development of mummification is a fresh approach and "as convincing an argument as we have been able to get to date." However, she says, our understanding of the ideological complexity that led to Chinchorro mummies still needs "fleshing out." "I know," she jokes. "Bad pun."

ScienceNOW, the daily online news service of the journal Science


Watch the video: Mummified bishop is a unique time capsule from the 17th century