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article imageDecay of 7000-year-old mummies attributed to climate change

By Igor I. Solar     May 11, 2015 in Environment
Arica - The mummies of the Chinchorro culture, deemed the world’s oldest, are being threatened by environmental and biological issues that experts link to climate change. The Chinchorro Indians lived about 9,000 years ago in the coast of the Atacama Desert.
The ancient mummies of Chile and Peru
The Chinchorro culture, one of the oldest in the world, developed on the southern coast of Peru, and northern Chile. This region, the Atacama Desert, is known as the driest desert on Earth, thus historically it has been a region sparsely populated. However, because of the cold Humboldt Current, the shores of Atacama are rich in marine resources, and the ravines and Andean streams reaching the sea provide fresh water as well as animal and plant species that supported the way of life of the semi-nomadic Chinchorro people.
The name “Chinchorro” comes from the beach of the same name in Arica, Chile, where German archaeologist Max Uhle found the first remains of this culture in 1917. The importance of this culture lies in the sophistication of their lifestyle and the way they preserved their dead. The Chinchorro society was one of the first complex cultural expressions revering death and their ancestors through the artificial preservation of mummies in the form of statue-like figures where red and black colors predominate.
Shoreline of the Atacama Desert in the Antofagasta region. These beaches were locations inhabited by...
Shoreline of the Atacama Desert in the Antofagasta region. These beaches were locations inhabited by the aboriginals of the Chinchorro culture.
The art of artificial mummification
While the ancient Egyptians mummified their top leaders, the pharaohs, the Chinchorro preserved all their dead, including children. Furthermore, the age of the Chinchorro mummies precedes the oldest Egyptian mummies by 2,000 to 3,000 years. The oldest mummy recovered from the Atacama Desert is dated around 7020 BC. In 1983, ninety-six mummies were found in a single burial site not far from downtown Arica by a utility company installing new water pipes.
Chinchorro mummies are known for their intricate process of preparation. The preservation of the dead began with
A black Chinchorro mummy. The embalmers adorned the head with a clay mask and a wig of human hair. T...
A black Chinchorro mummy. The embalmers adorned the head with a clay mask and a wig of human hair. Then, they painted the clay mask and the body with a layer of manganese oxide which gave a glossy, bluish-black color.
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the dismemberment of the body, removal of organs, muscles and bones and their replacement using plant fibers, pieces of leather and wood sticks. The skull was trepanned and the brain was extracted. Finishing touches generally included covering the head with a clay mask with eyes and mouth holes, and nostrils, clay genitalia, and a wig made from human hair.
Mummies, lots of mummies
So far, 282 mummies have been found, of which 149 are the work of Chinchorro artisans and 133 were naturally preserved by the environmental conditions of the Atacama Desert. About 180 of them are in conservation and display in various museums in Chile. The rest have remained in the places they were found. It is estimated that possibly over 10,000 mummies could still be buried in the slopes of coastal bluffs along northern Chile and southern Peru.
Despite their extraordinary antiquity, most mummies have been found in excellent shape. In northern Chile, environmental conditions favor the preservation of organic remains. The soil is rich in nitrates; salts prevent bacterial growth, and the hot, dry conditions facilitate rapid desiccation.
Decay of the long-preserved Chinchorro mummies
Unfortunately, in the last decade there has seen a progressive and alarming deterioration of the Chinchorro mummies in museums, and also in those remaining in their original location. It has been observed that at least 120 mummies show damage in the form of black, slimy spots covering surfaces. To elucidate the causes of this deterioration Chilean researchers of the University of Tarapaca consulted with Ralph Mitchell of the Laboratory of Applied Microbiology, Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. Mitchell's team analyzed the bacterial microflora in the bodies of mummies. They found that the cause of the degradation were not bacteria from ancient organisms, but it was an ordinary bacterium that lives in the skin of present organisms.
Head of a black mummy from the Chinchorro culture  found in Northern Chile.
Head of a black mummy from the Chinchorro culture, found in Northern Chile.
Pablo Trincado
At the same time, it was determined that the humidity levels in Arica and the Atacama Desert region have increased in recent decades due to climate change. The Mitchell research team found that the same bacteria applied to dry pigskin under the same conditions in which mummies are kept in the museum also cause a similar process of degradation, which validated the hypothesis of abnormal moisture levels leading to the mummies’ skin breakdown. "The humid air is allowing the bacteria to grow, causing the mummies’ skin turning into a black slime." said Mitchell. After further analysis, it was determined that the museum should keep the room where the mummies are being maintained with moisture level in the range of 40-60 percent because higher levels can advance degradation, and lower humidity would harm the mummies.
Archaeological sites of the Chinchorro culture and the extraordinary mummies they hold were submitted in 1998 to the tentative list of World Heritage Sites of UNESCO.
More about Chinchorro mummies, Atacama desert, Chile, Peru, Preserving the dead
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