The Mummy: The South American edition


Isaac Beck, Staff Reporter

  Just about everyone has seen The Mummy (the good one with Brendan Fraser) and has been fascinated by the mummified dead in this movie. The only problem with this movie is the common misconception that the first humans to have mummified their dead were from Egypt, while in reality they are from the driest place on Earth.

  The Chinchorro people settled in coastal bays of the Atacama Desert, in what is present-day Chile, around 7,000 BC and developed a technique for mummification around 5,000 BC which is roughly 2,000 years before the ancient Egyptians. Yet, while the Egyptians were a complex civilization mummifying only the elite pharaohs, the Chinchorro had a more egalitarian approach to honoring the dead.

  Mummification began with babies and fetuses (perhaps due to high fetal mortality in the arsenic-rich desert) before progressing to adults. There were five distinct styles over a span of about 4,000 years and the most prevalent are the black and red mummies. Making the black mummies involved taking the dead person’s body completely apart, treating it and then reassembling it, skin and all. The red ones were created by making small incisions to remove internal organs and then drying the body cavity. Both were typically stuffed with sticks and reeds (to keep the body intact), and adorned with wigs.

  The reason mummies have survived in the Chinchorro desert over the years is because of the extremely arid climate and the high salinity levels near the coast. For the past seven millennia there have been the perfect conditions for preserving mummies. That is, until climate change threw a wrench into the equation.

  The man who found the Chinchorro mummies was a German archeologist named Max Uhle. Uhle discovered the mummies a century ago near the beach in Arica which had the name Chinchorro.  The modern city of Arica lies on top of a vast cemetery of the Chinchorro people. However, the oldest forms of Chinchorro mummification are found 70 miles to the south in Caleta Camarones, a beach that’s barely changed in the 7,000 years since these ancient fishermen began preparing their dead.

  It is always fascinating to learn things that go against the common belief. Most people probably didn’t even know that there were mummies in South America and even less people would know that the oldest mummies in the world reside in the Chinchorro desert. I am just hoping that now they will make a new The Mummy (not with Tom Cruise) and base it out of the Chinchorro desert this time.