Chinchorro mummies, found in northern Chile, are the oldest mummies in the world, many of which date back 7,000 years or more, and are currently in grave danger of being lost forever to black slime. This black slime is occurring because of the intensity of the humidity levels that the mummies are exposed to, which is causing large amounts of bacteria to grow unchecked inside their skin.
It is reported that over 100 of these Chinchorro mummies are affected by this slime, leading local Chilean officials to appeal to UNESCO, part of the United Nations, to have the site of these mummies turned into a World Heritage Site so that they can be better preserved and protected going into the future.
While simply holding the title of a World Heritage Site won’t instantly fix the problem of these Chinchorro mummies, it will help to spread the word about the danger these mummies face if the humidity problem isn’t solved soon. It will also allow scientists from around the world to hopefully offer up a solution to save these ancient mummies according to anthropologist Sergio Medina Parra.
“The application is not a goal in itself, but the start of a process of improved conservation tools, with the Chilean state and the international community.”
There are believed to be around 300 Chinchorro mummies, as Science Alert report, which were first discovered just after 1900 and were found not only in northern Chile, but also in the south of Peru. These mummies encompassed people of all ages ranging from fetuses to adults and many of them were dated to have lived as long ago as 5050 BC.
This makes them much older even than Egyptian mummies as the Chinchorro people were known to have mummified their dead at least 2,000 years before the Egyptians took up their own mummification practice, as Medina Parra explained.
“The dates that we have for the bodies are from 7,000 years ago, so they have more relative antiquity in terms of intentional work on the human body than that found in Egypt.”
Unlike the ancient Egyptians, it wasn’t only pharaohs and the elite classes who were chosen to be mummified by the Chinchorro population. In fact, they reportedly appear to have mummified anyone, regardless of their age or social status, according to the University of Tarapaca’s Bernardo Arriaza.
“Chinchorro mummies were not restricted to the dead of the top classes. This community was very democratic.”
Did you know that some of the oldest mummies in the world are in the north of Chile? Meet the Chinchorro mummies! pic.twitter.com/1tdfNn2nvj
— ThisisChile.cl (@thisisChile) September 21, 2017
It is Arriaza’s theory that the practice of Chinchorro mummification may possibly have first come about because of local water that was contaminated with arsenic. This is because traces of arsenic were found in the tissues of many of these mummies, leading to the speculation that perhaps an overwhelming outpouring of grief at the deaths of so many young people led the Chinchorro people to try their hardest to find some way to preserve their lost loved ones forever.
“Arsenic poisoning can lead to a high rate of miscarriages, and infant mortality, and the sorrow over these deaths may have led this community to start preserving the little bodies. Mummification could have started with the foetuses and grown to include adults. The oldest mummies we have found are of children.”
The previously excellent survival of these Chinchorro mummies can be attributed to their placement below the Atacama Desert where they thrived beneath the sand for many thousands of years. It also helps that in this region of the desert there are some places which have seen no rain at all in 400 years or more.
Almost 300 Chinchorro mummies have been recovered from near the Peru border in recent years. The Chinchorro, a… https://t.co/dCqe2UKKLn
— Climate State (@climatestate) September 5, 2017
Unfortunately, after being moved so that research could be conducted on the mummies they began to develop problems with moisture, something which was immediately noticed in 2015. Harvard University’s Ralph Mitchell is extremely concerned about the humidity affecting the Chinchorro mummies and noted that nothing like this has ever been studied so far.
“We knew the mummies were degrading but nobody understood why. This kind of degradation has never been studied before. As soon as the right temperature and right moisture appeared, they started to use the skin as nutrients. The native microorganisms are going to chew these guys right up.”
Whether UNESCO and the United Nations will approve the site of these Chinchorro mummies as a World Heritage Site is still up in the air, but the hope is that they will approve the application and the oldest mummies in the world will be saved before they are entirely eaten up by black slime.