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
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.