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Home / Newsletter / “Momias de Chinchorro” – an endangered cultural treasure

“Momias de Chinchorro” – an endangered cultural treasure

The mummies of the Chinchorro people in northern Chile are the oldest man-made mummies in the world. From about 5000 B.C. on, long before the Egyptians, the people of this coastal culture lavishly preserve their dead. The oldest of the three developed methods is the “black mummy”: organs and muscles were removed and the body was carefully remodelled with mud and straw. Then, the body was mantled with its original skin and decorated with a mask and hair dress. Finally, the Chinchorro painted the mummy with manganese oxide before burying it in the desert soil. There are several theories for why a people who lived in relatively simple conditions would make such an effort to preserve their dead. One theory mentions that, due to naturally high levels of arsenic in the region’s groundwater, there was a high childhood mortality rate. Through mummification, the Chinchorro children could live on.

Every once in a while, Chinchorro mummies are found in mining project or construction sites – but lately they appear in bad shape: the mummies which have lasted thousands of years in the desert soil are now turning to black mud. This could be due to the climate change and the desert soil being more humid then before, so more bacteria can grow and decompose the mummies.

Some better-preserved mummies are on display in the San Miguel de Azapa Museum in the Azapa Valley near Arica, along with many artefacts of this fascinating, vanished culture. We would be happy to include a visit to Azapa in your Altiplano tours. Ask us!

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