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Climate chaos: Chinchorro mummies of Chile

How climate change is threatening world’s oldest mummies.

Chile’s Atacama Desert is the driest place on earth. Near the modern port of Arica lies a large Chinchorro cemetery, where hunters and fishers buried their dead for many centuries, as early as 5000 BC, the earliest mummies in the world. The arid conditions preserved their mummified corpses. The mourners stripped the skin and organs from the corpses, then wrapped them in carefully assembled reeds, sea lion skins, clay, alpaca wool, and wigs made from human hair. The resulting mummies survived for many centuries in near-perfect condition, thanks to the dry environment.

The Arica and other cemeteries around Chile’s far north are now under threat not only from looters but from increased humidity caused by anthropogenic global warming. Some mummies are covered with mold. Others are being consumed by insects or gradually destroyed by dry rot. The complex mix of raw materials used to protect the mummies makes preserving them exceptionally difficult, for there is no one solution. Dozens of Chinchorro bodies have already turned to white dust on the desert surface.

Although a museum near Arica is under construction, the long-term future looks bleak. The earliest mummies are those of infants and stillborn fetuses, but by 3,500 years ago, mummification spread to adults. South of Arica, at Caleta Camarones, a green fertile valley yielded water, but it contains lethal levels of arsenic that caused the Chinchorro to poison themselves. Here the mummies are vanishing inexorably, for the local authorities are taking no steps to preserve them. Only some members of the local community are doing their best.

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Image: A complete Chinchorro mummy at San Miguel de Azapa Museum in Arica, Chile.

Photo: Vivien Standen.

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