Chilean team proposes theory on why early culture began to mummify their dead

Aug 14, 2012 by Bob Yirka report
Chilean team proposes theory on why early culture began to mummify their dead
Head of a mummy from the Chinchorro culture, found in Northern Chile. Source: Wikipedia

(Phys.org) -- Researchers in Chile, led by Pablo Marqueta, an ecologist with Universidad Católica de Chile have come up with a new theory to explain why a civilization that thrived some seven thousand years ago suddenly began to mummify their dead. In their paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Marqueta and his team suggest that it was due to constant exposure to dead bodies as the group lived in an area that was so dry, bodies didn’t decompose.

Marqueta et al, hypothesized that the Chinchorro, hunter-gatherers that lived in the desert region of what is now northern and southern Peru, from about 10,000 years ago to around 4,000 years ago, began mummifying their dead as a way to deal with the bodies of those that had passed on, but refused to decompose. The bodies wouldn’t decompose because it was simply too dry; the area is one of the driest places on Earth. Thus over time, because the Chinchorro buried their dead in shallow graves, the wind would partially uncover them, leaving those still alive to be constantly exposed to thousands of such bodies in their lifetime. But that was only part of the story they say.

After studying ice samples from a nearby volcano, and other ecological factors, the team deduced that the area in which the Chinchorro lived experienced a time around six to seven thousand years ago, of a relative increase in water, but not in the air. More snow fell in the mountains leading to more water flowing down into the valleys, which led to more fish in the ocean nearby. The Chinchorro thrived, leading to groups as large as a hundred or more individuals. And when group size increases, the team says, along with prosperity, culture thrives as new ideas are exchanged.

The combination of the two, the group says, led to burial rituals, one of which was mummification, a natural extension of what the people were already seeing around them. This idea is reinforced by the fact that when conditions changed the mummification stopped. Around four thousand years ago, the heavier snows in the mountains ceased, leading to less water, less fish in the ocean, and a declining human population.

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More information: PNAS August 13, 2012 doi: 10.1073/pnas.1116724109

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DarkHorse66
5 / 5 (1) Aug 14, 2012
They might have a point. The other civilisation that comes to mind, where mummifying became the norm, is Egypt. All that sand would have presented them with the same problem of desiccating rather than decomposing bodies. Here is a wiki article, it tells both about deliberate mummifications and some 'natural' ones:
http://en.wikiped...ki/Mummy
This should raise a few eyebrows! :) :
http://www.omg-fa...-s/52710
Cheers! DH66
antialias_physorg
not rated yet Aug 14, 2012
Mummyfication be be good, but how about burning the bodies? (which would be a far easier way to get rid of dead bodies. Mummyfication seems to be a lot of effort just not to have to deal with non-decaying bodies). And I'm pretty sure the Chinchorro had fire.

But then again burial-by-fire that may not have been culturally acceptable.

Around four thousand years ago, the heavier snows in the mountains ceased, leading to less water, less fish in the ocean, and a declining human population.

Or they just started burning the bodies (or went for burial at sea).
DarkHorse66
4 / 5 (1) Aug 14, 2012
Burning a body takes quite a bit of fuel (need to build a pyre and need to get the temperature up high enough and needs burning for at least a minimum time) and desertified regions are notorious for their lack of copious renewable wood supplies (or other suitable quantities of alternate fuels) So I don't think that it was about the presence of fire in their culture, but about availability of fuels, esp since the living had an ongoing need of those rather sparse resources. It was a practicality issue. Regards,DH66
sstritt
1 / 5 (1) Aug 14, 2012
Burning a body takes quite a bit of fuel (need to build a pyre and need to get the temperature up high enough and needs burning for at least a minimum time) and desertified regions are notorious for their lack of copious renewable wood supplies (or other suitable quantities of alternate fuels) So I don't think that it was about the presence of fire in their culture, but about availability of fuels, esp since the living had an ongoing need of those rather sparse resources. It was a practicality issue. Regards,DH66

Dessicated bodies make good fuel. The British in Egypt used to burn mummies for fuel to power their steam locomotives.
islatas
not rated yet Aug 14, 2012
Dessicated bodies make good fuel. The British in Egypt used to burn mummies for fuel to power their steam locomotives.


I hope you're not referencing a joke documented by Mark Twain about 'Egyptians' using mummies for fuel in locomotives as fact.

"The fuel [Egyptian railroaders] use for the locomotive is composed of mummies three thousand years old, purchased by the ton or by the graveyard for that purpose, and . . . sometimes one hears the profane engineer call out pettishly, 'D--n these plebeians, they don't burn worth a cent--pass out a King!'"
sstritt
1 / 5 (1) Aug 14, 2012
I hope you're not referencing a joke documented by Mark Twain about 'Egyptians' using mummies for fuel in locomotives as fact.

Wanted to see if anyone would get it.
spaceagesoup
1 / 5 (1) Aug 15, 2012
Ah the old "wanted to see if anyone would get it" chestnut, hey :p