Eight thousand-year-old remains recovered from the Sado Valley in Portugal in 1960 and 1962 have given merit to a fresh approach to analyzing old remains, as new techniques revealed they may represent Europe’s oldest mummies. The approach enabled researchers to reconstruct the positions of 13 individuals found at the site, revealing clues that two of the bodies may have been prepared – or “cured” – before burial.
The hunter-gatherer burial site findings were published in the European Journal of Archaeology. The study combined archaeothanatology – an approach that looks at the spatial distribution of bones through the lens of how the human body decomposes – with modern human decomposition experiments to reassess the remains found in the Sado Valley back in the 60s.
The researchers were able to effectively travel back in time to revisit the remains at their time of discovery as new photos from the initial excavation emerged. The treasure trove of photos meant the researchers could revisit the original findings with new interpretative techniques and reconstruct the spatial arrangement of almost all of the individuals’ remains.
They could then work backwards to establish the funerary practices that would’ve enabled their final resting places by considering the way the human body falls apart as decomposition takes hold.
Their interpretations revealed that the cadavers had been buried before some of the weaker joints had begun to decompose. In fact, they seemed to have maintained their anatomical integrity overall surprisingly well, many laying in flexed positions with their feet pushed towards the buttocks.
Squashed positions like these point towards “clumping”, the hypercontraction of the body during decomposition. Some were so tightly packed that the researchers suspect tight wrapping or binding may have been used to keep the bodies compact.
Evidence of mummification came with two of the most hyperflexed remains whose bones stayed so in place that they’re believed to be indicative of some kind of pre-burial treatment. Areas like the feet are among the first to fall apart, even in filled graves, but this was not the case for the two specimens.
“Decomposition of the body in situ would normally generate activity such as bloating followed by the creation of significant empty spaces … as soft tissue disappears,” wrote the study authors. “In filled primary burials, disarticulated bones, such as [fingers], have often moved into such empty spaces.”
That the bones held their positions so well, they say, indicates that the bodies didn’t go into the ground as fresh cadavers but instead in a desiccated state, such as that created by mummification. Practices such as wrapping and curing bodies are both viable explanations for the two individual’s burial findings.
Using modern-day cadavers, the researchers were able to witness how wrapping and desiccation could enable the hyperflexed positions of the bodies as shrinking of soft tissues allows for greater flexion. They carried out guided natural mummification with cadavers both above ground and in soil to see how this affected the final spatial positioning.
Pre-burial treatment through this type of mummification may have enabled Mesolithic humans to preserve and transport their dead as it made for significantly lighter remains compared to a fresh cadaver. “Moving the dead would have been a costly endeavour,” the authors said, “mummification before transport would have made the journey easier.”
Mummification may also have had important cultural implications for Mesolithic humans’ understanding of death, especially considering that the process often requires days – or months – worth of tending to the dead’s many exudates. A good mummy needs to be warm, ventilated, dry, and – ideally – have some of the gassier, bacterial-heavy organs scooped out (but not always).
That mummification hasn’t been associated with the Mesolithic before could be the result of not having all the interpretative tools available when analyzing burial sites, say the researchers, as well as simply not expecting to find it. It’s their suggestion that mummification could well have been far more widely used even at this early stage, and across Europe, than previously expected, but more research is needed.
“Being a single case, it is difficult to say whether it represents an exceptional or a more common practice” the authors concluded.
“It would also be valuable to revisit the analysis of other potential [mummies]... with the same combination of archaeothanatological analysis and knowledge gained from experimental taphonomy.”