Chile’s Chinchorro mummies – the oldest mummies ever discovered on the planet – have been shrouded in mystery for thousands of years.
But recent 3D modeling scans conducted by Chilean and Japanese scientists are revealing fascinating new information about this ancient culture that called the Atacama Desert home between 7,000 B.C to 3,000 B.C.
The new scans show evidence that the Chinchorro people may have intentionally crafted clay masks to place over the faces of the recently deceased before burial.
According to Kenichi Shinoda, a researcher involved in the investigation, the finding is significant because the mask found on this mummy was applied to a newly deceased body – not a skull, as had been previously theorized about the Chinchorro’s burial practices.
“So far it has been thought that the clay masks were created after the face has changed into a skull. But with this mummy, it seems that the mask was attached while there was still a face,” Shinoda told The Santiago Times.
“The holes in the mask for mouth and eyes are connected to the points where the eyes and mouth of the mummy actually used to be,” he said.
While many people associate Egypt with mummies instead of Chile, scientists believe the Chinchorro people were mummifying their dead a full 2,000 years before the ancient Egyptians.
This new mask ritual finding adds to the list of recent discoveries about the Chinchorro mummies. Research led by Universidad Católica last year, for example, found that the arid climate of the Atacama Desert could have provoked the Chinchorro to begin mummifying their dead in the first place. The study argued that the desert’s unrelentingly dry climate likely left thousands of naturally mummified bodies strewn about the Chinchorro’s environment, which could have inspired them to begin ritually preserving their dead.