The desert city that hides the world’s first mummies

The Egyptians may have the most famous mummies, but they are not the oldest. The Chinchoro people of the Atacama Desert, Chile, were the first to begin embalming their dead.

In the Atacama Desert in Chile, the driest place on Earth, mummies were discovered that predate Egypt by two thousand years. Thus, although the Egyptians were famous for embalming the dead, it seems that they were not the first to adopt this idea, according to the BBC.

“Chinchorro is the first to conquer northern Chile and southern Peru,” said Bernardo Arreaza, an anthropologist at the University of Tarapaca in Chile. They were the pioneers of this desert.” It was also the first known culture to embalm the dead, he added, starting around 5000 BC.

embalming practice

The remains of hundreds of these fishermen – who lived on the Pacific coast of the Atacama Desert between 5450 BC and 890 BC – have been discovered in the regions of Arica and Parinacota. In 2021, these tombs were inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List for their immense archaeological value.

It not only reveals the funerary and artillery practices of ancient cultures, but also provides some details about the social and spiritual structure of the population. For example, mummification was not intended for the upper classes as in Egypt, but was a ritual that could benefit anyone, regardless of their social status.

“The Chinchorro culture is closely related in many ways. They are the first to practice funeral rites, and the oldest in these areas. The bodies we know today as Chinchorro are true works of pre-Hispanic art. They are artistic expressions of the feelings of these ancient inhabitants,” says Arreaza.

The peculiarities of the mummy in the region

Although recognition by UNESCO has come recently, the inhabitants of the Arica region have known about these archaeological monuments for a long time. That’s because the bodies are buried near the surface. So it can be said that the corpses are part of the foundation of the city.

For example, Johnny Vasquez, who has lived in Arica for more than 60 years, recalls that when workers first began digging for sewers, they found “layers upon layers of mummies.” And in 2004, when workers began excavating a hotel, they found bones less than a meter away, and turned the area into a museum.

To date, hundreds of mummies have been discovered, including those of children and infants. As Vivian Standen, a bioarchaeologist at the University of Tarapaca explained, the soil here contains a lot of natural arsenic, which may have contributed to the high death rate in the population, as well as a large number of miscarriages. Scientists have also proven that Chinchhuru fattened their bodies with manganese for traditional purposes – but since manganese is toxic, their health has been affected.

Life on a cemetery

Living on top of a huge tomb may seem unpleasant, but Arica resident Marina Esquieros says it’s not. “I am not at all afraid. Yes, I have a normal life here, I have a home. I do not think about dead bodies.”

Instead, the deceased locals see those around them as their ancestors and themselves as those they care for. “I feel we are a continuation of Chinchoros,” said Alfredo Guerrero, an Arica resident. “For the past ten years, I have felt and told my family that I will never leave this place. I will always stay here, so I will always visit them.”

And Jorge Ardiles, a local fisherman, agreed with him. “There were Hunters just like us in this place. And after thousands of years, we came to settle here. Then we, as a community of Hunters, took the power to consider ourselves their heirs and that is why we want to preserve the remains that they left behind, as a great legacy to the present society.” “We are contemporaries of Chinchurus at the moment.”

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