15 November 2018
Special Story

The oldest mummies in the world are in danger of disappearing

The Chinchorro, the oldest mummies in the world (at least 7,000 years old), are decomposing. From solid, their consistency is becoming liquid: they are turning into mud. The cause? The increase in humidity levels. The hypothesis most accredited by researchers is indeed that the muddy consistency is the result of colonies of bacteria, which thrive in the mummified skin.

A historical-scientific emergency – How It all began

In the early 1900s along the coasts of southern Peru and northern Chile, almost 300 human mummies were found, including adults, children, newborn babies and aborted fetuses. “The dates we have for the bodies date back to 7000 years ago“, explained Sergio Medina Parra, anthropologist and head department at the University of Tarapaca in Chile. To have preserved the bodies for all these years was the method of burial under the arid sand of the Atacama desert.
Chinchorro’s people mummified the dead about 2,000 years before the ancient Egyptians and unlike them, without distinction of class. “Chinchorro‘s mummies – asserted Bernardo Arriaza of the University of Tarapacà, who led excavations in the area for 30 years – werent limited to the dead of the well-to-do classes: it was a very democratic community“.

The excavations began in the last century and the mummified bodies were transported to research institutes in northern Chile, to promote their conservation. But since 2015 the situation has become alarming so much that Chilean archaeologists and researchers have turned to scientists at Harvard University.
Laboratory analysis of tissue samples revealed the presence of specific bacteria: germs that normally live on our body and that on Chinchorro accelerate the process of decay. “As they found the right temperature and the right humidity, they started feeding on the skin of the mummies“, Harvard biologist Ralph Mitchell pointed out.
For this reason, for some years, local officials are raising awareness to UNESCO, to recognize the Chinchorro World Heritage Site and safeguard this rare example of ‘democratic mummies’.


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Eleonora Boccuni

Eleonora Boccuni

"Sound information is the cradle of knowledge and is directly proportional to the interest felt for knowledge."

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