Discovered on the coastal area of the Atacama desert in northern Chile and southern Peru, the world's oldest mummies were created by small fishing communities known as the Chinchorro. Although regarded as primitive in the absence of farming, pottery, textiles and literacy, their complex mummification techniques actually reveal a highly sophisticated culture.
From c.6000 BC, the Chinchorro began to 'rebuild' their dead, with bodies carefully defleshed and the skin, brain and internal organs removed. The bones were dried with hot ashes before the whole lot was then reassembled using twigs for reinforcement bound tightly with reeds. Over this framework the skin was reapplied, and supplemented where needed with sea lion or pelican skin. A thick layer of ash paste was applied over the body and a stylised clay mask used to cover the face, painted with either black manganese or red ochre to give the mummies a rather clone-like, uniform appearance.
It is difficult to know exactly why such pre-literate societies practised mummification, but it must surely reflect a desire to keep their dead with them since the mummies do not seem to have been buried immediately. In some cases the faces have been repainted several times and damage to the area of the feet suggests they stood upright, perhaps as objects of veneration.
When finally buried the mummies were interred in family groups, and since the earliest Chinchorro mummies are children and foetuses, it is possible that women were the first to practice mummification in an attempt to keep their dead children with them.
The mummification begun by the Chinchorro continued and evolved throughout pre-Hispanic times amongst localised Peruvian cultures such as the Nazca and Chiribaya of the desert regions, and the Chachapoyas 'Cloud People' whose mummies have been found high above the Amazon rain forests. Bodies were mummified in a sitting position with knees drawn up under the chin and hands placed near the face, and with jaws often having fallen open, Edvard Munch's celebrated painting 'The Scream' is based on a Peruvian mummy he saw in a Paris museum. The upright position allowed body fluids to drain away through gravity, with the body itself preserved and protected within masses of superbly decorated textiles.
This picture of a Peruvian male mummy wearing a textile headband was taken in Museo Oro del Peru in Lima.
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