Ancient Atacama

New findings on origin of Chile’s Chinchorro mummies

A landscape of dead bodies may have inspired the Chinchorro people to become the first population to artificially mummify their dead, some 7,000 years ago. 

Friday, August 17, 2012 Category: Education - Culture
A Chinchorro mummy from the Atacama Desert in northern Chile. Photo: Pablo Trincado / Flickr A Chinchorro mummy from the Atacama Desert in northern Chile. Photo: Pablo Trincado / Flickr

While pop culture may make it seem like Egypt is the birthplace of the mummy, Chile’s Atacama Desert actually boasts mummified humans pre-dating those of Egypt by almost 3,000 years - making the Chinchorro people of the Atacama the very first known community in the world to mummify their dead.


But what first inspired the Chinchorro people to mummify their dead 7,000 years ago? A new study argues that a landscape of dead bodies caused by climate change was the initial trigger for this unique part of Chinchorro history.


According to new research by Pablo Marquet of the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile, a Chinchorro walking through the desert 7,000 years ago would have likely stumbled upon thousands of semi-decomposed bodies strewn about the ground due to the arid climate of the Atacama. Marquet’s study argues that these blackened remains inspired the Chinchorro to begin artificially preserving their own dead as a mimic of their landscape.


But could the Chinchorro’s small population really have resulted in a landscape of thousands of semi-decomposed bodies? Using ice core data from the Andes, Marquet’s team shows that a wetter climate period between 7,000 and 4,000 years ago could have led to a boom in the Chinchorro’s population, making this morbid landscape entirely possible.


“Dead corpses do not decompose in the coastal desert, so an increase in population size means an increase in corpses that become naturally mummified because of the extremely dry environment,” Marquet told Nature.


Mummies up close and personal


You don’t need to travel to a remote archeology site to see Chinchorro mummies for yourself. The Chinchorro mummies are currently on display at the Chile 15 mil años (Chile 15,000 years) exhibition, which is running at the Centro Cultural Palacio La Moneda in Santiago until October 18.


You can also see a permanent exhibition of Chinchorro mummies in the San Miguel de Azapa Archaeology Museum, near the city of Arica in Chile’s far North.