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Chinchorro: The History of the oldest Mummies in the World

Found at the beginning of the last century in Chile, these mummies were made with complex techniques long before the Egyptians began to embalm their deceased

More than six thousand years ago, the inhabitants of the coastal strip of northern Chile mummified their deceased in a funeral ceremony that has passed to posterity as one of the most elaborate in history. Those artisans are called Chinchorro.

They were nomadic communities that lived on fishing and gathering plants. When one of their own died, they began a complex ritual passed down from one generation to the next. The deceased passed into the hands of the teacher, a longest-serving member (about forty years old) and knowledgeable of the techniques necessary to create a mummy. He had the invaluable help of an apprentice.

In the open air and in the light of bonfires, he undertook the painful task of skinning the body, removing the organs and disarticulating and cleaning the skeleton. Next, he reconstructed it anatomically and reinforced it with stakes and fibers. Finally, he spent hours covering it with a layer of clay and covering it with another thick layer of manganese paint that the young man had previously collected on the beach. The result was a magnificent, hierarchic black body that could be preserved for years before being buried in the sand on the beaches or on the coastal slopes.

El arqueólogo alemán Max Uhle fue el descubridor de las momias Chinchorro.
German archaeologist Max Uhle was the discoverer of the Chinchorro mummies. (Public domain)

Older than the Egyptians

It was the German archaeologist Max Uhle who had the honor of discovering those mummies between 1909 and 1917. He unearthed the first on Chinchorro in Arica beach and soon described them in a series of works. In his articles he never used the term “chinchorro” (which in local parlance means raft or fishing net), although it is with this name – coined in the sixties – as they are known. Uhle called the Chinchorro “aborigines of Arica”. He mistakenly believed that his knowledge of preparing such complex and sophisticated mummies came from contact with more technologically developed Peruvian populations.

During the following decades, more Chinchorro settlements came to light, all of them limited in a range of about nine hundred kilometers along the narrow strip that runs from Ilo (southern Peru) to Antofagasta (northern Chile). Most of the mummies were created by specialist craftsmen; the rest are the result of the intense desiccation of the corpses in the sand of the Atacama desert.

Anthropologists Bente Bittman and Juan Munizaga revealed their antiquity in 1976. They suggested that elaborate mummies could represent the earliest known examples of artificial mummification worldwide. His hypothesis was confirmed thanks to radiocarbon, the most accurate dating system in use for less than a century. With this method it was dated in 5050 a. C. one of the mummies of a site in the Camarones valley.

The fact that the mummy could be transported denotes the semi-nomadic character of the Chinchorro

That date certifies that the Chinchorro are the first people to artisanal mummify their deceased, antecedent in about two thousand five hundred years the earliest Egyptian embalming practices.

Dreamy and awake

Why did they go to such lengths to preserve the body of their lost beings? Experts venture various responses in the absence of written sources. It is possible that the Chinchorro believed that the deceased was reborn in society as a living transformed entity or that they conceived it as a link with the afterlife.

Be that as it may, the extremely complex preparation techniques of the mummies reveal that in the transition phase to the new existence there was no room for chance. Everything had to be done with the utmost care. The mummy meant a second chance. The preparations evolved in various styles, black, red and clay patina, according to the classification of the Chilean anthropologist Bernardo Arriaza.

Representación de una momificación según la costumbre de la cultura Chinchorro en el Museo Arqueológico San Miguel de Azapa, en Chile.
Representation of a mummification according to the custom of the Chinchorro culture in the San Miguel de Azapa Archaeological Museum, in Chile. (Andrea021 / CC BY-SA-3.0)

The first of these, black, is the most elaborate and oldest. Mummies of this style look like vivid blue-toned statues, ready for a new existence. Most of them wear masks with modeled facial characters. Small indentations served to delineate the eyes and mouth, and to give the body an expression of peaceful reverie.

The fact that the mummy could be transported from one place to another would denote the semi-nomadic character of the Chinchorro. The black style was gradually disappearing. Archaeologists attribute it to a change in the Chinchorro mortuary conception or to such practical reasons as the manganese shortage.

Towards 2500 a. C., the bodies were already painted with red ocher, a very abundant material in the region. The red style featured innovations in the facial expression of the masks. Unlike the black mummies, in which the faces were those of a sleeping person, in these the eyes and the open mouth were represented. This indicated the state of wakefulness and alertness of the deceased. Experts point out that open-mouth delineation may have preceded the widespread practice among the Incas (creators of an empire in the 12th century from present-day Ecuador to Chile) of feeding and speaking to ancestors.

Black and red mummies also shared various aspects. In both, alteration and wear processes are observed, which were mitigated by repair and repainting. It is, say specialists, a clear indication of exposure to the elements for long periods of time. They may have been exhibited in family or community shrines or moved in long religious processions before being buried in groups of various individuals.

They carried out equal treatment in their mortuary practices, without any social discrimination

Simplification

The practice of complex mummification may have ceased in Chinchorro society at the end of the 2nd millennium BC. C. The corpses were simply dried, covered with a thick layer of mud, and buried. In contrast to the eminently mobile character of the two previous styles, in this one the dense layer of clay fixed the mummies to the ground of the cemetery, making their transfer unfeasible. This may indicate a loss of knowledge and tradition of complex mummification, an ideological evolution, or the development of a sedentary society.

The intentional mummification disappeared soon after. The corpses were buried wrapped in a vegetable fiber shroud and deposited resting on the back. The only existing mummification was the natural one. At that time, Egypt had not yet reached its maximum degree of splendor in the art of mummifying. Pharaoh Tutankhamun, whose mummy was revealed to be one of the most spectacular in history, was not even born.

From peer to peer

The Chinchorro always carried out an equal treatment in their mortuary practices. They did not discriminate on the basis of age, sex or social status, unlike the distant Egyptians, who mummified kings and nobles.

Una de las momias de la cultura Chinchorro.
One of the mummies of the Chinchorro culture. (Pablo Trincado / CC BY 2.0)

Its funeral guidelines reflect a democratic feeling. They honored all members of society, whether or not they had contributed to it. It even appears that they mummified the unborn in a sophisticated way. Their behavior is infrequent, since in most societies children received very little mortuary care.

The offerings of his burials were very humble compared to the Egyptian sumptuousness. Most of the gifts were made up of objects related to daily activities, such as harpoons, hooks made from cactus tips or mollusk and basketry shells. Those fishermen did not work metals and did not include gold or precious stones in their grave goods.

Perhaps this explains, in part, the scant attention their mummies have received from the mass media. Despite this, they constitute an immense archaeological gem. Their design makes them an unprecedented work of art. They are the oldest evidence of the use of the human body as a link established by man with the supernatural world, and constitute the first manifestation of religious art on the American continent.

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