Ancient Egyptian mummies get all the fame and glory, but the Chinchorro people of Chile's Atacama Desert were the first to mummify their dead.
The earliest known example of a Chinchorro mummy made by humans dates to around 5050 BCE – that’s over 7,000 years old. However, there are even older naturally mummified individuals in the region that date back to 7020 BCE, when the Chinchorro people utilized the achingly arid desert to preserve their dead.
The Chinchorro were a society of hunter-gatherers who lived near the northern coast of the Atacama Desert. As a seaside community, they were keen fishermen and ate a diet rich in seafood. Their name translates to “gill netters”, referencing the way they caught fish.
Their homeland is on the fringes of the Atacama Desert, the driest nonpolar desert in the world. It’s been an arid region for 10-15 million years and some parts of the desert perhaps didn’t see any significant rainfall for 401 years between 1570 and 1971.
Living in these conditions isn’t easy for humans –or indeed any lifeform – but the Chinchorro people took advantage of the uber-arid environment.
It’s believed that they took their deceased loved ones out to the desert where the extremely dry conditions would stave off decomposition, allowing the bodies to become naturally mummified.
The oldest of these bodies dates to around 9,000 years ago. It was discovered at the mouth of the dry ravine, called “Acha”, around 5 kilometers (3 miles) east of the coast at Arica, Chile. Much of the body has broken down, but scientific investigations have managed to uncover the body's identity: a man who died at around 25 to 30 years of age. He's become known as the Acha Man.
Seemingly inspired by this natural preservation process, the Chinchorro people later started to artificially mummify their human remains. The example of an intentionally mummified body dates to around 7,000 years old.
As per UNESCO, Chinchorro sites dating back to 5450 BCE have been associated with known artificially mummified human bodies. Many of these mummies remain in remarkably good condition, still adorned in the vibrant clothing and decoration of their long-lost culture.
“The cemeteries reveal that the Chinchorro innovated continuously in their mummification practices to create artificial mummies that possessed extraordinary material, sculptural, and aesthetic qualities that reflected the fundamental social role of the dead in human society,” UNESCO explains.
For context, all of this is millennia before mummification was perfected by the ancient Egyptians on the other side of the globe. In January 2023, archaeologists in Egypt unveiled some 4,300-year-old mummified remains, which they hailed as the oldest mummy ever found in the country.
The desert graveyards where the ancient Chinchorro buried their dead were declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 2021. However, these mind-blowing relics face an uncertain future. In the wake of climate change, many of the mummies have reportedly degraded, with some even breaking down into a “disgusting black sludge”.
The Chinchorro mummies may have survived thousands upon thousands of years, but let’s hope they can make it through the next century.