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News > Chile

Chile Seeks Protection for World’s Oldest Mummies

  • World's oldest mummy is found in Chile.

    World's oldest mummy is found in Chile. | Photo: Reuters

Published 1 May 2019

World's oldest mummies are not in Egypt but in Chile which predates mummification by 2,000 years. 

The world’s oldest mummies are not in Egypt but in Chile. Roughly 2,000 years before Egyptians developed the techniques of mummification, the Chinchorro people of Chile achieved the feat according to a report by CNN.


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The Chinchorro people settled in the Atacama Desert around 7,000 BC and developed the technique of mummification around 5,000 BC. They were also much more egalitarian while preserving the dead while Egyptians only mummied elite pharaohs.

The San Miguel de Azapa Archaeological Museum in the small village of San Miguel de Azapa holds around 300 mummified remains of Chinchorro people though only displays 10 percent for public due to lack of finance and space.

"It's a very sacred collection because the majority of the items are related to the ceremony of death," curator and conservationist Mariela Santos said about the mummies.

The mummification started with preserving babies and fetuses mainly because of high fetal mortality rate.

Over 4,000 years, five distinct styles of mummifications were used among them, the most prevalent were red and black mummies.

For making the black mummies, the corpse was completely taken apart from the skin down, treated, and reassembled. For the red ones, the vital organs were removed by smalle incisions and then the body cavity was dried.

Chile now wants UNESCO to recognize the Chinchorro sites as World Heritage Site. A proposal is being prepared by the country which would be delivered to the UNESCO by 2020.

The local government has also been promoting archeological tourism and empowering the local fishing community to act as the custodians of Chinchorro burial sites.

"What we're trying to show is that we not only have the oldest evidence of intentional mummification, but it was done by pre-ceramic hunter-gatherer people in a pristine environment that remains today," Bernardo Arriaza, a physical anthropologist said.

"These were the earliest settlers of the Atacama region, so I like to think of them as the pioneers of the desert. They may not have been technologically advanced, but all of their complexity went into the preparation of the dead."

The mummies were well preserved due to the arid climate of the are but now due to climate change, the mummies are turning bad and they need urgent protection.

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