The world’s oldest mummified remains were discovered in Chile’s Camarones Valley, south of Arica, the last major city before the border with Peru. Dated to about 5050 BCE, the remains predate the famed Egyptian Pharaohs and represents the first known instance of human societies preserving their dead. The practice of mummification amongst the Chinchorro continued thousands of years until around 1800 BCE when the civilization began to fade.
Two mummies nearly as old as those found in Camarones have recently been returned to Chile by an anonymous Swiss collector, along with two others – one from an unidentified pre-Columbian period and the other made during the 16th century. The older two mummies are thought to be as many as 7,000 years old. One of the many pre-Columbian societies that thrived along the riverbeds of Chile’s dry desert north, the Chinchorro were the sole practitioners of mummification. Studies of preserved remains have found that the Chinchorro lived almost entirely from seafood.
Today, the legacy of Chinchorro culture can still be seen on a visit to Arica. On Las Machas Beach, north of Arica, fishermen still use traditional techniques passed down for thousands of years.
In the Azapa Valley, which begins just inland from Arica, the San Miguel de Azapa Archaeological Museum keeps four Chinchorro mummies on permanent display.
Massive, 1500-year-old geoglyphs scattered across the arid hills and flat lands from San Pedro de Atacama to the north testify to the presence of other ancient civilizations that survived here in the world’s driest desert.
The mummies now returning to Chile from Switzerland are being handed over to the Chilean Council of National Monuments. The museums where they will be housed have still not been chosen yet.
Though the Ethnography Museum in Geneva initially received the remains as a gift from the collector, officials there decided that their unclear provenance made it unethical to accept the gift. The mummies were turned over to the Chilean government in a small ceremony at the Museum, Jan. 20.