Chinchorro Mummies: The Basics

When you think about mummification, what do you think about? Ancient Egypt? King Tut? The discoverey of treasure filled tombs? If so, congratulations. You are probably among 99% of Americans (yes, I made that statistic up– but you get the general idea). The Egyptians, however, were not the only society to practice mummification, nor were they the first. In fact, it was a relatively limited phenomenon within their society.

Have you ever heard of the Chinchorro mummies? Unless you are a student of ancient cultures, probably not.

The Chinchorros were a maritime society that occupied the coastline of southern Peru and northern Chile from around 7020 to 1110 BC. This society produced the first known synthetic mummification system in the world, coming into practice around 5050 BC and continuing until about 1720 BC, (around 2,000 years before the oldest known Egyptian mummy, Ginger, picutred below).

Ginger

Additionally, the Chinchorro were one of the few societies that mummified people of all ages and statuses—even fetuses. This is significant for two reasons: first, few other societies practiced mummification on all their dead (the Egyptians only mummified people of great social significance, including pharaohs, priests, and nobles); and second, the Chinchorro inadvertently left us a plethora of evidence for this practice (nearly 300 Chinchorro mummies have been excavated, and hundreds more probably still remain to be found).

Mummified Baby

The Chinchorro were distinct not only in their widespread use of mummification,  but also in their methods.  The process we tend to associate with mummification is strictly Egyptian. We typically think of organs being removed, brains being pulled out through the nasal cavity, and bodies being wrapped in linens.

For the full details on the Egyptian procedure, see: 

However, the mummification processes of the Chinchorros were vastly different. The Chinchorro produced several different kinds of mummies: Red, Black, Bandage, Mud-Coated, and Natural. This is how each was made:

Black (5000-3000 BC): The skin and organs were removed; the skeleton was cleaned and fortified; the body was reformed using clay; the skin (either of the deceased or another animal, such as a sea lion) was reattached; and the head was reconnected to the body and decorated with a face mask and a wig of black human hair. Finally, the entire body was painted a blue-black tint (For an image of a Black mummy, see: http://www.momiaschinchorro.cl/en/en/mummieseng?start=1 ).

Red (2500-2000 BC): The organs and muscle tissue were removed; the body was dried and reinforced with wood; the body was refilled with feathers and clay; the brain was removed and the head filled and topped with a black wig; the incisions were then closed and the body was painted (excluding the face) a red color (For an image of a Red mummy, see: http://www.momiaschinchorro.cl/en/en/mummieseng?start=2 ).

Bandaged (2500-2000 BC): The body was treated in the same manner as the Red mummies, differing in the fact that the skin was cut and wrapped around the body like bandages (For an image of a Bandaged mummy, see: http://www.momiaschinchorro.cl/en/en/mummieseng?start=3 .)

Mud-Coated (2500-2000B.C.): The body was covered in a layer of mud.

So, now that we all have a general knowledge of the Chinchorro mummies, some questions to ponder: Why was the practice of mummification a society-wide phenomenon among the Chinchorro people? Why was so much care given to each person in this society? What rituals were involved in these processes? What were the beliefs surrounding these practices? Basically, why do these mummies exist?

Our sources:

1)      http://www.jstor.org/stable/971599?&Search=yes&term=mummies&term=chinchorro&list=hide&searchUri=/action/doBasicSearch%3FQuery%3Dchinchorro%2Bmummies%26gw%3Djtx%26acc%3Don%26prq%3Dchinchurro%2Bmummies%26hp%3D25%26wc%3Don&item=1&ttl=53&returnArticleService=showFullText

2)      http://www.momiaschinchorro.cl/en/en/cultureeng

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