Mummies Around the World @ Mummy Tombs


Greenland Mummies


Where they were found

They were found in two gravesites near the former coastal settlement of Qllakitsoq, Greenland, a desolate area. Two hunters, brothers Hans Gronvold and his brother Jokum, discovered them in October, 1972.

When they were made

The graves were dated to A.D. 1475. 

How they were made

They are natural mummies, produced by freezing temperatures.

How many were made

Eight mummies (six women and two children) were found in all.

What's special about them

1. The mummies are the oldest preserved remains in Greenland. Researchers realized they had a special opportunity to study a part of Greenland's history, and they chose to do so as nondestructively as possible. The mummies of the younger child and three of the women were well preserved, and they were studied as found. Researchers did not undress them or even cut into them, except for a small incision made in the women's backs. The four other mummies were not particularly well preserved; their clothing was removed so that it and their bodies could be studied more carefully.

2. Five of the six women mummies were tattooed, as was customary with the Inuit. Infrared photographs revealed that the tattooed women had black or dark blue lines on their faces. The lines were on the forehead and arched over the eyebrows. Two of the women also had a dot tattooed onto their forehead. Each woman had tattooed cheeks, while three had lines tattooed beneath their chins.

3. The mystery surrounding their deaths intrigued scientists. The fact that the two graves contained women and children but no men puzzled researchers. They knew that the Inuit did not bury women and children separately from men. So they wondered if the eight had drowned together, perhaps when a boat capsized. However, the evidence seemed to rule out this possibility. Researchers also tried to analyze the contents of the stomachs and intestines to determine if the people had died at the same time, but researchers could find no evidence relating to when the other seven people had died. 

4. The researchers were able to identify with some certainty the cause of death of only three people. One woman had a malignant tumor near the base of her skull which most likely caused her death. The older child had Calvé-Perthes disease, which afflicts the hip joint and which would have made him vulnerable to other life-threatening diseases. The younger child, a boy about six months old at death, appeared to have been buried alive. Because they did not want to destroy the mummy or its clothing, the researchers were limited to taking x-rays of the child. Inuit custom at that time dictated that the child be buried alive or suffocated by its father if a woman could not be found to nurse it. Although such a practice seems cruel now, the Inuit believed that the child and its mother would travel to the land of the dead together. The researchers concluded that the child had been buried alive.

Where to see them

The six-month-old child and three of the female mummies are on permanent display at the Greenland National Museum in Nuuk.

Where to find more information

The Greenland Mummies by Jens Peder Hansen is the original, well-illustrated account of the discovery and findings related to the mummies. Highly recommended!

Janet Buell has written Greenland Mummies for children.