Preserving The Dead: Weird And Grisly Practices From Around The World

The Egyptians were certainly prolific in mummification, but they certainly weren't the first, or last, to do it. Mikhail Zahranichny/Shutterstock

Our imagery of mummification is often dominated by the Egyptians, especially around Halloween. But whilst they may have been incredibly prolific in preserving their dead, helped in no small part by the environment in which they lived, they were by no means the first – or last – to practice this funerary ritual. In fact, cultures the world over, on every continent except Antarctica, have dabbled in the art of preserving their dead. From Lady Dai of China, to the shrunken heads of the Amazon, if you thought mummies were all bandages and pyramids, then think again.

Where it all began

Thought to be the oldest mummies in the world, the Chinchorro people preserved all members of society, including children and babies. Pablo Trincado/Flickr CC BY 2.0

Two thousand years before the Egyptians first started preserving their priests and pharaohs in increasingly elaborate ways, on the other side of the world on the coast of South America, one group of people started making mummies of their own. In what are believed by some to be the world’s oldest mummies, 7,000 years ago the Chinchorro people from northern Chile and southern Peru were preserving their dead in the dry Atacama Desert in a fairly unconventional and grisly way.

After probably first noticing that any dead they buried became preserved in the dry desert and deciding to help the process along, the Chinchorro would first remove the skin from the bodies. Then they would clean out the internal cavities, and de-flesh the remains. The bones would be put out to dry, and then packed with twigs, clay and seaweed, before having the skin stitched back over. The bodies were then painted black, and masks made of clay and wigs of human hair were placed on the heads.

But it seems that far from being a ritual for the rich and powerful as with the Egyptians, the Chinchorro would practice mummification on all members of society, and were presumably kept for a long time, as areas of damage to the skin have been repaired with seal skin. There is, however, some debate as to whether these constitute “true” mummies, as the strict definition is the preservation of soft tissue beyond what would normally be expected.

The peat bogs of Northern Europe

Tollund man, while not actually from the Bronze Age, was preserved in a peat bog in Denmark. Sven Rosborn/Wikimedia Commons

Whilst mummies might normally be associated with hot and dry environments, this isn’t always true. Recent research has shown how communities living in the cold and damp of northern Europe during the Bronze Age, at around the same time Tutankhamun was being swathed in bandages, were also mummifying their dead too. It wasn’t previously thought that people in Bronze Age Britain practiced mummification, but researchers have found evidence from skeletons that they were indeed preserved quickly after death and kept above ground for at least a few decades.

There was not, however, one set method. “There’s actually a bit of evidence for quite a lot of variation in how people were mummifying in the Bronze Age,” Dr. Tom Booth from the Natural History Museum, London, who undertook the research, explained to IFLScience. What he found suggests that the communities were using whatever materials they had to hand to preserve the dead, be that a fire for smoking, or an acidic peat bog.

These peat bogs are found right across northern Europe, from Ireland to Estonia, and provided the perfect conditions for preserving organic matter. The highly acidic water, anaerobic conditions, and cold environments in the bogs prevent the growth of bacteria on the bodies and their decomposition, preserving them in extraordinarily lifelike conditions. It was these properties that Booth thinks the Bronze Age people exploited. “They should have known about the preservative qualities of the bogs just because peat was used a lot for fuel back then, so it’s likely that they would have come across either animals or humans as they were digging through the peat,” says Booth.         

A Victorian facination

Taken in 1896, this photo shows H.G. Robley with his collection of Mokomokai. Henry Stevens/Wellcome Images/Wikimedia Commons

The western world has long been fascinated by mummies, especially during the Victorian era when they were seen as curios and souvenirs by the wealthy. With Egyptian mummies they used to host mummy unwrapping parties, while some were even sent to the U.S. where they were pulped and turned into paper. But these weren’t the only mummies of interest to the western world during this period. After Captain Cook first visited New Zealand, sailors, sealers, and traders used to exchange muskets for preserved Māori heads.

Known as “Mokomokai,” the trade in the heads exploded during the early 19th century, becoming a highly profitable business. The heads were desired due to the traditional tā moko tattoos that adorned the mummified faces. Originally practiced to preserve the head of relatives, or sometimes that of an enemy chief killed in battle, as trade picked up they were soon being made to order, with the Māori even tattooing slaves before killing them and preserving their heads.

This was done first by removing the brains and eyes, and then sewing the shut the mouth and eyes with fibre and sealing them with gum. The heads were then either boiled or steamed, before being smoked and then dried in the sun for a few days. Finally, the heads were rubbed with shark oil. The result was the prefect preservation of not just the intricate tā moko tattoos, but even the likeness of the dead person. One prolific collector of Mokomokai was the British general Horatio Gordon Robley, who from the 1860s amassed a collection of nearly 40 heads.          

Alive and well in the modern world

And if you thought that the practice of mummification ended in our distant past, then you might be surprised to learn that it’s still going strong, not in the remote forests of some distant country, but in the city of Heidelberg, Germany. It is here where Gunther von Hagens set up the Institute for Plastination in 1993, which saturates human bodies with plastics to preserve them for both medical and educational purposes.    

The process was developed by von Hagens when he was an anatomy assistant, and involves multiple steps. The first involves embalming the bodies by pumping formalin through the arteries, and conducting the first stages of dissection. Then the fat and water is removed from the bodies by immersing them in a bath of acetone, which draws out and replaces all the liquid in the body’s cells.

It is then transferred to a bath of liquid plastic, such as expoxyresin or silicone rubber, where it is then placed in a vacuum. The vacuum has the effect of causing the acetone, which is in every cell of the body to boil and leave the specimen, where the liquid plastic can then flow in and replace it. Finally, the bodies are positioned as to how they are desired, and hardened using heat or UV light.

The result is the incredibly preserved plastinated bodies, which are used not just as anatomical specimens, but in exhibitions shown around the world to educate the general public. The process has not, however, been without controversy. These have mainly focused around the sourcing of the bodies used, with claims of a modern day black market for bodies and organs from executed Chinese prisoners.

In one Indonesian village, people dress up their dead relatives and change their clothes once every three years. They often walk them around the village. The ritual is known as  Ma'nene, and it honors their love for their deceased relatives.

Image: Tumblr

Final image in text: A plastinated man holding his skin, from the Body World's exhibition in London, 2008. Farrukh/Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0  

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