Mummies Around the World @ Mummy Tombs


Chinchorro Mummies


Where they were found

The mummies of the Chinchorros have been found near the border of present-day Peru and Chile along the Pacific coast. The principal towns between which the mummies have been found are Ilo (Peru) to Arica, Iquique, and Antofagasta (all Chile). The mummies appear to have been made first in the area around Arica.


When they were made

The Chinchorros may well have been the first people in the world to practice mummification. They preserved their dead beginning about 5000 B.C., reaching a peak in 3000 B.C.--around the same time that the Egyptians began experimenting with mummification.

How they were made

The methods used by the Chinchorros were quite different from those of the Egyptians. In fact, it appears as if they made three types of mummies, though not during the same time periods. Here are the two most common methods:

Black mummies: From about 5000 B.C. to 3000 B.C., the Chinchorros literally took the dead person's body apart, treated it, and reassembled it. The head, arms and legs were removed; the skin was often removed, too. The body was heat-dried, and the flesh and tissue were completely stripped from the bone.

Special attention was given to the skull. It was cut in half, about eyeball level, and the brain was removed. The skull was then dried and packed with material and tied back together (along with the jawbone).

Then it was time to put the body was put back together. Morticians strengthened the limbs and spinal column by inserting sticks under the skin. They packed the body with various materials, including clay and feathers. Finally, they reattached the skull.

After reassembly, the body was then covered with a white ash paste, filling the nooks and crannies left by the reassembling process. The paste was also used to fill out the person's normal facial features. The person's skin (including facial skin with a wig attachment of short black human hair) was refitted on the body, sometimes in smaller pieces, sometimes in one almost-whole piece. Sometimes sea lion skin was used as well.

Then the skin (or, in the case of children, who were often missing their skin layer, the white ash layer) was painted with manganese--giving them a black color.

Many such mummies have been recovered. The face of one Chinchorro mummy had been painted many times, leading some archaeologists to suggest that the mummy had been displayed for a long time before it was finally buried.

Red Mummies: From about 2500 BC to 2000 BC, the Chinchorros made red mummies by a completely different method.  Rather than disassemble the body, they made many incisions in the trunk and shoulders to remove internal organs and dry the body cavity. The head was cut from the body so that the brain could be removed.

They packed the body with various materials to return it to somewhat more-normal dimensions, used sticks to strengthen it, and sewed up the incisions. The head was placed back on the body, this time with a wig made from tassels of human hair up to 60 cm long. A "hat" made out of black clay held the wig in place.  Except for the wig and often the (black) face, everything was then painted with red ochre. Occasionally the skin would be replaced on the body, but this was not a common practice with red mummies.

How many were made

According to Bernardo Arriaza, about 282 Chinchorro mummies have been discovered. Slightly over half of these mummies were made artificially by the methods described above. The rest were mummified accidentally in the dry coastal climate.

What's special about them

The Chinchorro mummies are the oldest human-made mummies discovered in the world so far. That fact alone makes them quite special.

What is also special is the fact that during the periods when Black and Red mummies were made, everyone who died appears to have been mummified. In other words, mummification was not reserved for those of high rank or status.

Where to see them

Many mummies and artifacts are on display at the Archaeology Museum of San Miguel de Azapa at the University of Tarapacá in Chile.

Where to find more information

Beyond Death by Bernardo Arriaza is the primary book on the subject. You don't want to miss it if you are fascinated by the Chinchorros. Highly recommended!

The Mummy Congress: Science, Obsession, and the Everlasting Dead by Heather Pringle devotes most of one chapter to the children's mummies of the Chinchorros. It's an especially thoughtful and insightful account and my favorite chapter in the book. It blends a discussion of the Chinchorro mummies with that of the fate of the Incan mummies destroyed by Pizarro and later representatives of the Catholic Church. I have never come across a clearer, more vivid account of what actually happened. This chapter clearly shows Pringle's strengths as a writer.

Discover (December 1998) featured an article on the Chinchorro mummies which discusses how the Chinchorro suffered from many illnesses. One study suggests that 1 out of every 4 died before the first birthday; discover.jpg (5403 bytes)1 child out of 3 had infections that caused the leg bones to decay; and 1 woman out of 5 had bones so weak that her vertebrae splintered. For some of the causes and theories about their health problems, don't miss this article. 

 Archaeology (January/February 1999) featured an article  on archaeological finds in South America.  Two Chinchorro photographs are printed: the main one is an evocative shot of a naturally-made mummy (tousled hair and no clay face) seated part way up a sand dune, possibly looking toward sea. Unfortunately, almost no information is given about the body or the photo. The second photo shows the clay face of an artificially-made Chinchorro mummy, as well as some of the sticks and plant material used to build and bound the mummy (after it was taken apart and dried).