Inside the World’s Oldest Mummies

SANTIAGO, CHILE – Researchers are using modern medical technology to reconstruct the likeness and understand the genetic code of people that lived over 7,400 years ago.

The Chinchorro mummies are the world’s oldest, dating 2,000 years older than the oldest Egyptian mummy. Archaeologists have fifteen of them, and they’re made up mostly of children and unborn babies. At the Los Condes clinic in Santiago, Chile, archaeologists and researchers put each mummified body through a CAT scanner, collecting several thousand images which will allow them to virtually dissect each body without disturbing the remains. Using the knowledge from the CAT scan images and virtual dissection, experts will be able to reconstruct muscles and whole faces.

“We want to see what they physically looked like, to reconstruct them and bring to life someone who died thousands of years ago.” – Marcelo Galvez, Chief radiologist at the Los Condes clinic.

The Chinchorro culture of South America lived from 7,000 to 1,500 BC. They were mostly sedentary fishermen along the Pacific coastal region of Chile and southern Peru. Most of what we know about them comes from archaeological sites in several coastal towns in Chile and the mummies they left behind.

If their mummies are any indicator, this early civilization had an extremely extensive knowledge of human anatomy. Using the CAT scans, researchers were able to discover just how these mummies were created, and it’s very different to how the Egyptians made theirs.

According to Veronica Silva, the head of the anthropology department at Chile’s National Museum of Natural History, Mummification was an extremely intimate and sacred process that was done by the family of the deceased. First, the family would carefully remove the skin and muscles from the deceased. Then, they would use various materials, such as wood, plants, and clay to rebuild the body around the skeleton. The skin would then be sewn back on, and they would artistically add a mouth, eyes, and hair. Then, a mask would be placed over the body’s face.

As time wore on, the mummies became more and more intricate and artistic. The earliest mummies were unborn fetuses and newborn babies. The newest mummies are extremely elaborate. One of the fifteen mummies studied turned out not to be mummy at all, but instead a figurine. Experts believe it was meant to represent a person that couldn’t be mummified.

Researchers at the clinic have one more study they want to conduct on the mummies: they’ve taken skin and hair samples so they can analyze their DNA. They’re hoping to identify genetic links with modern-day people who live in Chile.

The most curious thing about the mummies is, perhaps, that unlike other cultures who mummified their dead, the Chinchorro did not build any sort of structures to bury their dead in. Instead, the mummies that have been found were all discovered outdoors near the beach.

Why the Chinchorro decided to mummify their dead is still unclear. They’ve left very little traces of their culture beyond these mummies. Perhaps they were trying to give their dead children another chance at life in the afterlife. Perhaps there was another reason. There’s simply not enough information to speculate.