South American Mummies

The Earliest Mummies

Mummies from ancient Peru, Chile, and Ecuador may not be as well known as Egyptian mummies, but they’re some of the oldest artificial mummies in the world. Most were mummified through natural processes such as drying or freezing, rather than through more elaborate methods.

Early South American cultures practiced a wide variety of burial rituals and mummified their dead for many different reasons: as a memorial, as a way of keeping their loved one part of family gatherings, and sometimes as an offering to the gods.

The Chinchorro peoples—who created the earliest mummies 7,000 years ago—memorialized their dead by placing a clay mask over the mummy’s face. The body itself was preserved by removing and tanning the skin, then stretching it over the bones of the de-fleshed skeleton.

The Paracas society mummified their dead by drawing a body into a sitting position and bundling it, as well as offerings of pots and figurines, in layers of textiles. Sometimes the dead were later exhumed to take part in ceremonies.

Chancay False Mummy Head

© The Field Museum

200-1400 AD
Ancon, Peru
FM 48.183584

Among the Chancay peoples of Peru’s coastal regions, mummies were revered ancestors that were typically buried with pottery, food, and other objects they used in life.

“False heads” made of textiles stuffed with shells and adorned with shell eyes and a sewn mouth were placed on top of the mummy bundles. Families and communities revisited these mummies, which may even have participated in the social life of the community after death.

The Nazca buried human heads with some of their mummies. DNA studies have shown that these heads likely came from local community members and may have served as symbols of potency and fertility.

For scientists, these mummies provide valuable clues to the lives of people who lived in this region thousands of years ago.

Mummifying Animals

Archeologists often find mummified animals in the tombs of Egyptians. In some cases, these appear to be household pets, perhaps intended to provide companionship in the afterlife.

Occasionally, mummified animals appear to have been meant as a source of food for the deceased, to sustain him or her during the journey to the other world.

However, most animal mummies were offerings to a god associated with the animal. Archaeologists have uncovered enormous cemeteries all over Egypt containing thousands of mummified cats, birds, crocodiles, and more.

Inca Mummies

Perhaps the most well-known South American mummies are the Inca ice mummies, called the capacocha, or “royal blessing.”

As the honored children of local nobles, they traveled from their homelands to Cuzco, the Inca capital, where they were celebrated and received gifts.

After they returned home to their native province, priests fed them corn beer and quickly sacrificed them to send them to the gods. Their bodies, along with gifts of gold and silver figurines and fine pottery, were then buried on icy peaks as messengers to the mountain deities.

CT Scanning

Due to their extreme fragility, the last time many of the Museum’s mummies were examined was in 1931, when conventional 2D x-rays of them were published in Fieldiana. These x-rays often raised more questions than they answered.

Thanks to the generosity of Robert Dakessian, President and CEO of Genesis Medical Imaging, a mobile medical CT scanner mounted in a specially adapted truck was brought to the Museum, where it was set up in the West Parking Lot and used to generate scans of specimens.

Scanning Specialists

The Museum invited many specialists—such at Dr. Michael Li, DDS, MS from UIC Orthodontics, Dr. Jeffrey Rosengarten, MD, Chairman of the Department of Radiology at Northwestern Lake Forest Hospital, and Dr. Mary Peters, DDS and volunteer in the Museum’s Geology Department—to view and analyze the scans.

These specialists helped to clarify the sex, age, and health issues faced by each specimen, and determine whether injuries to the mummies were sustained before death, during the embalming process, or some time afterwards.