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Chinchorro, the world’s oldest mummies

The Chinchorro mummies are the world’s oldest known artificial mummy. Artificial in the sense that they are intentional man-made creations. The Chinchorro mummmies range from 4,000 to 7,000 years old. The techniques used in construction vary as well as the possible reasons why they may have been mummified.

The Chinchorro were discovered in the Andes, Chilean region. They were believed to be a nomadic people that fed primarily on seafood and plants. The Chinchorro mummies exist in three types. The first type would be a human wrapped in cloth and was naturally preserved by the arid climate. The other type is perhaps the one they are more famous for.

The Chinchorro would go through painstaking means to carefully remove all of the skin from a body. They would then divest the body of muscles, organs, and strip it to near bone. Sometimes they would split the skull remove the brains and replace them with other materials and bind the skull. All of the muscles and organs were carefully reconstructed. They were made of varying twigs, sticks, and grass bundles to create an “artificial” human. The body then had the skin reapplied and a clay mask was made for the face. The third type of mummy involved bodies that were typically wrapped and molded entirely in clay.

Children proved to be exceptionally difficult for the Chinchorro to mummify. Often times there would be only one remnant bone in the mummy. The rest of the form representing more of a doll like figure. Archaeologists posit one of two theories as to why the Chinchorro practiced mummification. The primary being that because they were a nomadic culture the tribe would carry the mummy with them. This was done probably with children more than adults, because it was thought that a trip back to the central camp became necessary when more than one member of the family passed. Another reason for mummification may have been for spiritual or religious reasons. The mummies showed peculiar instances of repairs or touch ups over time. This would have been due to using the mummy in religious celebration or transport.

Regardless as to the reason the Chinchorro mummified their dead; the fact remains that they are one of the most unique examples of mummification. The seemingly doll like facade can illicit both a calm and uneasy feeling in the modern viewer. It may leave them wondering it is truly a dead body before them or an artistic creation.

Further Reading:
* Written in Bones
* Making the dead beautiful
* Chinchorro Mummies

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