Why the Chinchorro suddenly began to mummify their dead
Researchers in Chile, led by Pablo Marqueta, an ecologist with Universidad Católica de Chile have arrived at a new theory to explain why a culture that existed around seven thousand years ago suddenly began to mummify their dead.
The researchers have been examining the Chinchorro, hunter-gatherers that lived in the desert region of what is now northern Chile and southern Peru, from about 10,000 to 4,000 years ago. The mummies first date to 5050 BCE and continue to be made until about 1800 BCE.
The Chinchorro people lived by a combination of fishing, hunting and gathering: the word Chinchorro means roughly ‘fishing boat‘. They lived along the coast of the Atacama Desert of northern-most Chile from the Lluta valley to the Loa river and up into southern Peru. The earliest sites which are mostly recognised as middens date as early as 7,000 BCE at the site of Acha, and the coastal middens indicate a diet predominated by sea mammal, coastal birds and fish.
While most cultures that practised ritual preservation sought to focus on preserving the elite of the society, the Chinchorro tradition performed mummification on all members of the group from babies to elderly and with no distinction for sex, making them archaeologically significant. In fact, it is often the case that children and babies received the most elaborate mummification treatments – and of the 282 mummies that have been found by archaeologists the statistics seem to hold to an egalitarian mummification ritual.
A sudden need to mummify
The new theory focuses on the idea that they began mummifying their dead as a way to deal with the bodies of those that had passed on, but refused to decompose, as a result of environmental change. The bodies wouldn’t decompose because it was simply too dry; the area is one of the driest places on Earth.
Over time, because the Chinchorro buried their dead in shallow graves, the wind would partially uncover them, leaving those living in the area to be constantly exposed to thousands of naturally dessicated bodies that sensitized the local population to a cult of the dead. Increasing contact with natural mummies over the Chinchorro’s 5000-year history, the authors suggest, likely underlies the culture’s complex funerary practices.
But there was more to it than this they suggest – after studying ice samples from a nearby volcano, and other ecological factors, the team deduced that the area in which the Chinchorro lived – around six to seven thousand years ago – experienced 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 culture 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.
The emergence of complex cultural practices in simple hunter-gatherer groups poses interesting questions on what drives social complexity and what causes the emergence and disappearance of cultural innovations.
The researchers have convincingly analysed the conditions that underlay the emergence of artificial mummification in the Chinchorro culture and provided sound statistical, empirical and theoretical evidence that artificial mummification appeared during a period of increased coastal freshwater availability and marine productivity, which caused an increase in human population size and accelerated the emergence of cultural innovations.
- Pablo A. Marquet et al., “Emergence of social complexity among coastal hunter-gatherers in the Atacama Desert of northern Chile,” PNAS August 13, 2012 doi: 10.1073/pnas.1116724109
- Chinchorro Mummies
- Cultura Chinchorro Momias Chinchorro