Named after the ancient culture they were part of, the Chinchorro mummies are known for being considered the oldest discovery of this type of mortuary preservation technique; even two milleniums before the Egyptian mummies.
The Chinchorro culture lived approximately between 7.020 and 1.500 B.C, that’s before any city or civilization that it’s known, and inhabited from the south of Perú in the north, to the Antofagasta Region in the south; settleting by the shore. This culture had a tradition of fishing and harvest, allowing them to not only adapt themselves in what today we call the Atacama desert, but also the Pacific coast in order to find food.
The first mummies were found in 1917 in the Chinchorro beach in the Arica and Parinacota Region, through an excavation and study led by the German archeologist Max Uhle. The lack of pottery or metallurgical remains made it possible to conclude that they did not develop these practices; but, nonetheless, they had specific cults related to death and its concepts. Their mummies, are not only the oldest registered, but their technique had a level of complexity that could be associated to more technological and advanced civilizations.
There is no clear motive of why the culture decided to employ this preservation technique, but it has been proven that the levels of arsenic led to the premature dead of children and fetuses. As a conclusion, it is thought that mummification developed as a emphatic practice in order to relief the pain of the dead child’s family. Furthermore, there is also the theory that the minerals from the area contributed to the natural mummification and then the culture decided to perfect the technique.
Experts divide the mummies into four different groups; the black mummies (5.000 – 2.800 B.C), red mummies (2.500 – 1.500 B.C), mummies with bandages (2.620 B.C) and the mummies with mud cape (2.500 – 1.700 B.C). Due to the fact that no material elements were found along with the bodies, it was concluded that Chinchorros did not believed in life after dead or that material objects hold no real value, but they practice this ritual for humanitarian purposes.
There are currently 190 mummies, which are protected, preserved and studied by the Universidad de Tarapacá, in the San Miguel de Azapa Archaeological Museum and in Sitio de Colón 10. It is also possible to find a few mummies in the Natural History Museums of Santiago and Valparaíso
Since 1998, the mummies have been part of Chile’s Tentative List, which is the previous step before being considered a World Heritage by the UNESCO. Meanwhile, books, archaeological research, and documentaries support the historical importance of these mummies and their study.