The Aleut people reside in the Aleutian Islands off the coast of Alaska. They called themselves Unangan, but the Russians, arriving in the area in the 1740’s, bestowed the name Aleut upon them. Like the Chinchorro, the Aleut people went to great lengths to preserve their dead. The specific mummification techniques varied slightly from group to group within the culture, but general trends can be observed. First, the bodies were eviscerated and the central cavity was stuffed with dried grass. They next put the body into a running stream, which apparently dissolved the fat of the body, leaving merely muscle and skin. Then, the body was dried by exposing it to the air for an extended period of time, while tied in a flexed position. Occasionally fire may have been used to help in the drying process. After the drying was complete, the body was wrapped in fur, mats, and bird skin, and placed in a cave or other rock shelter, resting on a wooden shelf-like platform.
In the case of the Aleutians, we have some helpful ethnographic data which can help us determine the purpose of mummification and their beliefs about it. Their belief system included, “a concept of continuation of power in the dead, and that such power could be exploited,” (Aufderheide, 78). The spirit could effectively be ‘sealed in’ to a family member’s body through the process of mummification. Mummies were then used by the living as sources of advice; they were thought to give aid in hunting and fishing and to protect from enemies, among other things. Such mummy ‘consultations’ were in effect in the Aleutian culture as recently as 1862, as documented by Russian orthodox priests. Mummies were also sometimes taken apart, so that small parts of them (such as a finger) could be taken on hunts to guarantee safety and success. In the case of Aleutian mummies, the techniques used were determined according to the social status of the deceased. Is it possible that different members of the society (such as tribal leaders and hunters) had a different or stronger spiritual power and thus had to be preserved in a different way?
Some scholars believe the Aleutian funerary practice was a product of their “pragmatically oriented culture,” (Cockburn, 125). This argument is founded upon the fact that the Aleuts had a particular interest in the anatomy of humans; they performed autopsies on their dead and studied the anatomy of animals such as the sea otter comparatively.
The Aleutian mummies might be able to help us understand the beliefs behind the Chinchorro practices. Both cultures used some sort of natural mummification process combined with artificial techniques to create the mummies. Both cultures removed the organs of the dead and replaced them with dried grass. In the previous blog, we suggested that the Chinchorro people, who had a strong connection to their natural surroundings, used certain materials to represent their surroundings as they returned the body to the earth. Both the Aleutian and Chinchorro mummies were mummified with natural materials, including grass and animal skin. This shows a strong connection to the natural surroundings as well. The Aleut people also used their mummies after the mummification process was complete, similar to evidence shown by the Chinchorro mummies (wear, tear, and repair). The Aleut mummies, according to the Russian priests, were used as a sort of protective talisman; they could be disassembled and used as protection on hunts. While we are pretty sure that the Chinchorro mummies were never disassembled and used in such a manner, we do know that they were used after mummification, perhaps as guardians or protective talismans as well. One significant difference between the Aleutian and Chinchorro mummies is the “sealing” of the body. The Chinchorro left the mouth open, perhaps as an opening for receiving food or a method of speaking. The Aleut people sealed off the body in an effort to keep the spirit of the body. Perhaps the Chinchorro, like the Aleut people, believed in the continuation of power among the dead, but chose to show it in a different manner.
[citation: Aufderheide, Arthur C. (2003). The Scientific Study of Mummies. Cambridge University Press. 77-79.