Mummies Around the World—Dried, Smoked, or Thrown in a Bog

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Polish scientists are launching what they say will be the world’s largest scientific study of Egyptian mummies. The Warsaw-based project will examine 42 mummies, looking for clues to ancient diseases, the mummies’ former occupations, and even whether the corpses were left-handed.

Though Egypt’s mummies are perhaps the most famous, cultures around the world have found creative ways to preserve their dead.

Here are a few of world’s mummies, including some you may not have heard of, and their strange path to pseudo-immortality.

Bog Bodies

Ireland is known for its fairy tales of leprechauns and sprites, but it turns out there’s something even stranger hiding out in the mists—bog bodies.

Bodies thrown into the bogs of Ireland hundreds of years ago are preserved by this hostile environment. Bogs have very little oxygen, keeping the bacteria that eat dead bodies at bay and allowing bog bodies to be preserved for centuries. (See National Geographic’s pictures of bog bodies.)

One of the most recent of Ireland’s bog bodies was discovered in 2011 and the oldest bog body on record at 4,000 years old, which is 500 years older than King Tutankhamen of Egypt.

Though the bog can tell us about the lifestyle, diet and living conditions of a person, it also destroys DNA, so no one knows the bodies’ exact lineages. Some scientists think that the Irish bog bodies were former kings, violently murdered and then tossed into the bog because they failed to protect their people from disease or famine. (For more theories on ancient bog bodies, check out “Who Were the Ancient Bog Mummies? Surprising New Clues.”)

Little did they know that their bodies would be preserved for millennia.

World’s Oldest Mummies

Chile’s Chinchorro mummies are the oldest known intentionally created mummies in the world. The Chinchorro were a fishing people living on the coast of what is now southern Peru and northern Chile about 9,000 years ago.

The most famous Chinchorro cemetery is in Chile, nestled between the cities of Arica and Cobija, where the remains of what are known as the “Black Mummies” were hidden for millennia. Black Mummies were named for the layer of black manganese, a metal resembling iron, that coated their bodies.

To create a Black Mummy, Chinchorro morticians cut off the body’s head, arms and legs, scooped out the organs and flesh, and often emptied the brain through a hole in the skull. The skin was peeled away from the body and reattached later, like taking off and putting on a sock, according to a 1995 study published in the journal Latin American Antiquity. Morticians completed the process by shoving hot coals into the trunk cavity to dry the cadaver.

Afterward, morticians rebuilt the body with sticks and animal hair, and covered it in white ash. As a final touch, morticians attached a crop of short black hair to the scalp, and painted the corpse black with manganese.

Picture of mummies being examined

The Chinchorro mummies are the oldest known artificially preserved dead, dating to thousands of years before Egyptian mummies.
PHOTOGRAPH BY IVAN ALVARDO, REUTERS

No one knows why the Chinchorro mummified their dead. It’s possible they believed in an afterlife, or perhaps natural disasters such as earthquakes and El Niños pushed their people toward mortuary rituals and ancestor worship.

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