Chinchorro: the American culture that mummified its dead before the Egyptians

For centuries, the citizens of Arica, a port city in Chile lived on top of the oldest mummies in the world without even knowing it. To them, they had been obstacles in the constructions and worthless treasures in the excursions. “Sometimes the neighbors tell us stories about how children used skulls to make soccer balls and took the clothes off the mummies,” archaeologist Janinna Campos Fuentes told the BBC.

This historic cemetery is so extensive that archaeologists are always present at any construction site to prevent human remains from being mistreated, trafficked or, worse still, not reported to the authorities.

It is about the mummies of the Chinchorro culture a population that settled on the coast of the Atacama desert, between Ilo (in Peru) and Antofagasta (in the extreme of Chile), according to the University of Tarapacá, the leading institution in researching and preserving this civilization.

The first mummified bodies were discovered in 1917, near Chinchorro beach. Two years later, the German archaeologist Max Uhle pointed out that all the remains – more than 200 mummies to date – belonged to inhabitants of an ancient culture that bore the name of the place.

However, only in 1983, with the carbon 14 method, its approximate dating was known. The date surprised all archaeologists: seven thousand years old, that is, two thousand years more remote than egyptian mummies the most famous in the world.

Who were these ancient settlers and how could they predate one of the great cultures in history?

Although the ‘chinchorros’ were a group of marine hunters and gatherers benefited by the effects of the Humboldt current, they have transcended in history for being the first in mummification practices. The cult of death and ancestors was even greater than the making of ceramics.

Their technique and approach to mummification was radically different from that of the Egyptians. While the latter used oil and bandages to preserve the bodies of the nobility, who were worshiped even after death; the chinchorro culture mummified everyone regardless of their status: men, women, children, babies and even fetuses.

The process consisted of extracting all the organs and replacing them with natural fibers (vegetables, feathers, pieces of leather, wool, etc.) and sticks to keep the corpse straight. The skin of the face and the skull were also intervened to remove the brain.

“The Chinchorro culture considered their mummies as part of the world of the living, which explains why they left their eyes and mouth open, and that they used stretchers made of vegetable fiber or animal skins to transport them. After a while, they were collectively buried, ”the researchers from the University of Tarapacá told the BBC.

In the last years of primitive culture, intentional mummification was minor and the bodies were reburied in the desert, leaving nature to preserve them.

In 2021, Unesco included this archaeological site on the World Heritage List. Since then, a small part of the mummies discovered to date are on display, while the majority are housed in the San Miguel de Azapa Archaeological Museum.