Mystery Of The Chinchorro Civilization And The World’s Oldest Mummies

Is the mysterious Chinchorro culture related to an ancient unknown Atacama Desert civilization?

What can new studies reveal about the world’s oldest mummies? The Chinchorro people had excellent knowledge of human anatomy, but their burial practices differed.

The mysterious Chinchorro civilization lived on the coast of present day northern Chile and southern Peru, including the Atacama Desert from 10,000 to 3,400 B.C. This ancient civilization remains shrouded in mystery and there is still a lot we don’t know about these intriguing people. The Chinchorro civilization left no trace besides its mummies that are today considered to be the world’s oldest mummies.

The Chinchiorro were among the first people in the world to mummify their dead. Their mummies date back some 7,400 years which meant that the Chinchiorro mummies are at least 2,000 years older than Egyptian mummies.

The biggest problem with unraveling the secrets of the Chinchorro mummies is that they are rapidly degrading.

Nearly 120 Chinchorro mummies are housed in the collection of the University of Tarapacá’s archeological museum in Arica, Chile. If we want to learn the truth about the ancient history of the Chinchorro civilization, we must examine the ancient mummies now before it’s too late.

“In the last ten years, the process has accelerated,” said Marcela Sepulveda, professor of archaeology in the anthropology department and Archeometric Analysis and Research Laboratories at the University of Tarapacá who specializes in materials characterization, during a recent visit to Cambridge.“It is very important to get more information about what’s causing this and to get the university and national government to do what’s necessary to preserve the Chinchorro mummies for the future.”

Scientists have now taken 15 of the mummies to a Santiago clinic to undergo DNA analysis and computerized tomography scans. Modern technology will help researchers to reconstruct what they looked like in life, decode their genes and better understand the mysteries of this ancient civilization.

“We collected thousands of images with a precision of less than one millimeter. The next phase is to try to dissect these bodies virtually, without touching them, which will help us preserve them for another 500,000 years.

Using high-tech computer processing, researchers are busy reconstructing the mummies’ muscles and facial features.

We want to see what they physically looked like, to reconstruct them and bring to life someone who died thousands of years ago,” chief radiologist Marcelo Galvez said.

Today, the ancient Chinchorro civilization has become well-known for their detailed mummification practice that lasted for several thousand years, evolving and adapting over the period. However, the Chinchorro were a fishing, hunting and gathering people and the word Chinchorro means roughly ‘fishing boat’.

Very little is known about this ancient culture and only a handful of their settlement sites have been identified to date. Researchers think the Chinchorro people lived in small groups of huts housing single nuclear families, with a population size of approximately 30-50 individuals.

Many of the Chinchorro sites are in the Atacama Desert where scientists report to have discovered evidence of ancient lakes in the desert. These ancient lakes were large enough to sustain small human populations. The lakes’ presence challenges the current understanding of the paths early settlers took to explore and settle South America and it is possible that there was once an ancient, unknown Atacama Desert civilization.

Were the Chinchorro people possibly part of this unknown civilization? There are many questions that remained unanswered.

What is known is that the Chinchorro had an excellent knowledge of human anatomy.

They were able to carefully remove the skin and muscles of the deceased. Then, using wood, plants and clay, they reconstructed the body around the remaining skeleton, and then sewed the original skin back on, adding a mouth, eyes and hair. Afterwards, a mask was placed over the face.

The result looks like something in between a statue and a person—eerily lifelike even after thousands of years.

Interestingly the Chinchorro never constructed any pyramids or burial mounds. Up to now, 180 Chinchorro mummies have been discovered. All of them were found outdoors placed near the beach.

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