Civilization’s oldest mummies, around 7,000 years old, were discovered a century ago along the desert that blankets northern Chile and southern Peru. Having survived for millennia, so to speak, some of the hundreds of embalmed bodies are deteriorating quickly due to environmental factors that international experts are trying to figure out.
One hypothesis, professor Marcela Sepulveda said, is that changes in humidity related to global warming are causing the damage.
“Under certain humidity parameters, the skin’s microbiome degrades,” Sepulveda told Fox News Latino. “We don’t have climatological data, but it is suspected that humidity can be one of the causes” damaging the mummies’ skin.
Some specimens are turning into a black ooze, according to a report published by Harvard’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences earlier this week.
“Episodes of humidity and changes of temperature have always occurred,” Sepulveda told FNL. “What we have to find out is if they played a role in the deterioration of the Chinchorro mummies."
“We cannot rule it out, but we are investigating other factors,” she added.
The Chinchorro people, small groups of fishermen with a loose social organization, mummified everyone who died – even fetuses – as opposed to the mummification practices in Egypt 2,000 years later, which were directly tied to prestige and social status.
Dr. Bernardo Arriaza, a renowned archeologist who has studied the ancient culture, created three categories for the extensively prepared and ornamented Chinchorro mummies: black, red, and bandaged styles.
“Black mummies represent secondary burials and statuette-like figures,” he told in an interview posted online. These were reinforced with reeds, sticks and clay and were covered with a layer of manganese paint.
By contrast, red mummies were stuffed, with a stick for internal reinforcement. “Chinchorro morticians made incisions to de-flesh the body and removed internal organs. Thus soils, grasses and feathers were used to fill the cavities in an attempt to recover the lost volume,” Arriaza explained. The surface of the bodies were painted bright red from head to toe, except the face, which was painted black or brown.
Both black and red mummies were topped with a wig, although the length of the hair varied according to the status of the deceased.
The third type of mummy categorized by Arriaza, the bandaged ones, the body was taken apart and reinforced in the style of black mummies, but the head was treated in the same way as red mummies are.
“The Chinchorros likely considered their mummies as powerful living entities inhabiting a parallel world. The dead were part of the living society, like the modern Christian statuettes of saints,” he said.
Approximately 300 mummies in varying degrees of decomposition have been unearthed, with one-third of them being housed at the Tarapaca Museum and the rest spread out in museums and institutions around the world. Sepulveda said there hasn’t been any major excavation project since the 1980s, when a massive discovery took place.