Living With The Oldest Mummies in Chinchorro



  • an expert on the Chinchorro, says they practiced intentional mummification.
  • Discovering human remains during building works or having your dog sniff out and dig up parts of a mummy 
  • Africa’s heritage should remain in the hands of its people and benefit the local community.

As per the report published by BBC, the chinchorro people are said to be living with the mummies, and being one of the oldest islands, there are many mummies found there.

The Geographical Location and the UN Recognition

“It may seem strange for some people to live on top of a graveyard, but we’re used to it,” says Ana María Nieto, who lives in the Chilean port city of Africa.

Africa, on the border with Peru, is built on the sandy dunes of the Atacama desert, the driest desert in the world. But long before the coastal town was founded in the 16th Century, this area was home to the Chinchorro people. Their culture hit the news in July when the United Nations’ cultural organization, Unesco, added hundreds of mummies preserved by them to its World Heritage List.

The Chinchorro mummies

The Chinchorro mummies were first documented in 1917 by German Archaeologist Max Uhle, who had found some of the preserved bodies on a beach. But it took decades of research to determine their age.

Radiocarbon dating eventually showed that the mummies were more than 7,000 years old – more than two millennia older than the more widely known Egyptian mummies.

Some facts about these mummies:

  • The pre-ceramic culture lasted from 7,000 to 1,500 BC
  • Sedentary fishers and hunter-gatherers
  • Lived in what is now northernmost Chile and southern Peru
  • Mummified their dead in a sophisticated and evocative manner
  • Mummification is believed to have started as a way to keep the memories of the dead alive

 The mummification 

That makes the Chinchorro mummies the oldest known archaeological evidence of artificially mummified bodies.

Anthropologist Bernardo Arriaza, an expert on the Chinchorro, says they practiced intentional mummification. 

That means they used mortuary practices to conserve the bodies rather than leave them to naturally mummify in the dry climate – although some naturally mummified bodies have also been found at the sites.

The mummification process

  • Small incisions would be made to a body, the organs taken out and the cavities dried while the skin was ripped off, Mr. Arriaza explains.
  • The Chinchorro people would then stuff the body with natural fibers and sticks to keep it straight before using reeds to sew the skin back on.
  • They would also attach thick black hair onto the mummy’s head and cover its face with clay and a mask with openings for the eyes and mouth.
  • Finally, the body was painted in a distinctive red or black color using pigments from minerals, ochre, manganese, and iron oxide.

The Chinchorro’s methods and approach to mummification differed markedly from that of the Egyptians, Mr. Arriaza says.

Not only did the Egyptians use oil and bandages, but mummification was also reserved for deceased members of the elite whereas the Chinchorro mummified men, women, children, babies, and even fetuses regardless of their status.

Living on the graves

With hundreds of mummies found in Arica and other sites over the past century, locals learned to live alongside – and often on top of – the remains.

Discovering human remains during building works or having your dog sniff out and dig up parts of a mummy is something generations of locals have experienced. But for a long time they did not realize just how significant these remains were.

“Sometimes the residents tell us stories about how the children used the skulls for footballs and took the clothing off the mummies, but now they know to report back to us when they find something, and to leave it alone,” archaeologist Janinna Campos Fuentes says.

Locals Ana María Nieto and Paola Pimentel are thrilled that Unesco has recognized the significance of the Chinchorro culture.

The women lead neighbor associations near two of the excavation sites and have been working closely with a group of scientists from the local Tarapacá University to help the community understand the importance of the Chinchorro Culture and to make sure the precious sites are looked after.

Neighborhood plans

There are plans for a neighborhood museum – where rows of Chinchorro remains lie under reinforced glass for visitors to peer at – to get a new interactive extension. The idea is to train locals as guides so they can show off their heritage to others.

Currently, only a tiny part of the more than 300 or so Chinchorro mummies are on display. Most of them are housed at the San Miguel de Azapa Archaeological Museum.

The museum, which is owned and run by Tarapacá University, is a 30-minute drive from Arica and has impressive displays showing the mummification process.

A larger museum is being planned on the site to house more of the mummies but funds are also needed to ensure they are correctly preserved so they do not deteriorate.

Mr. Arriaza and archaeologist Jannina Campos are also convinced that Arica and the surrounding hills still hold many treasures that have yet to be discovered. But, more resources are needed to find them.

The mayor, Gerardo Espindola Rojas, hopes the addition of the mummies to the World Heritage List will boost tourism and attract additional funds.

Urban planning laws are in place and archaeologists are present whenever building works are carried out, he says, to make sure the precious remains are not disturbed.

Mayor Espindola is also adamant that unlike in some other parts of Chile, where tour operators and multinational companies have bought up land to reap profit from tourist sites, Africa’s heritage should remain in the hands of its people and benefit the local community.

Neighborhood association president Ana Maria Prieto is positive the newfound fame of the mummies will work in everyone’s favor.

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Source: BBC


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