MAGICAL Mummies of the Atacama

Article excerpt

Modern research reveals that the ancient people of this coastal desert region of Chile developed the world's most complex methods for preserving the dead

Two millennia before the Egyptians even began thinking of mummification, the Chinchorro, an obscure coastal culture in the Atacama Desert region of present-day northern Chile, practiced elaborate methods of preserving their dead. Scientists have determined that the Chinchorro mummies are the world's oldest, ranging up to seven thousand years in age. And the hundreds of these super-ancient mummies still being uncovered in the city of Arica are not just extraordinary artifacts, but through DNA research and other scientific methods, they are providing a rich laboratory for studying a way of life that long disappeared before even the emergence of language and the written word.

"The Chinchorro are the mavericks of the Andean world," says Renato Aguirre, a general surgeon and Arica local historian who has written a book on the history of his town. "They just don't go along with the rest of the Andean cultures. The Incas mummified their kings and brought them out for parties. They kept them with their wives. The Egyptians did it for a second life. The Chinchorro mummified their bodies for magic rituals, and the natural environment here has perfectly preserved them for nine thousand years. Arica is the paradise of archaeology," he says enthusiastically.

Indeed it is. Tucked between the Atacama and the cool Pacific Ocean, the city of Mica is the epicenter of Chinchorro mummy research. "You cannot build a house here without finding skulls and bones and things like that," says Aguirre. Ensconced by sand dunes, the breezy tranquility of this town belies its importance as a regional port and trading center; large factories chum out fishmeal here, and the city's reputation as a beach resort is growing.

In 1917 the, first of the mummies were discovered along Arica's popular Chinchorro beach. Max Uhle, the first archaeologist to study those early mummies, was not privy to carbon-14 dating technology though, and he mistakenly estimated their age at a mere two thousand years. The mummies did not attain their status as the world's oldest, however, until the last few decades, when the first archaeologists to use carbon-14 dating published their findings.

Their arguments were then buoyed by an astounding discovery of Chinchorro mummies in 1983. Workers bulldozing to cut a trench for a new waterline on El Morro--a striking, large massif that overlooks downtown Arica and its shoreline--uncovered numerous pieces of the ancient bodies. Construction was immediately stopped at the site, and archaeologists from Arica's University of Tarapaca arrived to recover ninety-six mummies belonging to a largescale Chinchorro graveyard.

The majority of the Chinchorro mummies have so far been found at the El Morro site, but others have been found as well along the full extension of the once Chinchorro territory, which archaeologists believe stretched nearly five hundred miles--from the city of Ilo in southern Peru to the Chilean city of Antofagasta.

The region's near absence of rain and humidity, combined with desert heat, has made it the perfect environment for mummy preservation. According to local officials, during one fifty-nine-year stretch, Arica received an average of just 3/100 inches of rain per year. And when the rare rain does fall, it never penetrates more than a foot of soil. In the Atacama, there are areas where it has not rained in all of geologic history.

Ever since the pronouncement that they are the world's oldest, the University of Tarapaca's collection of nearly three hundred Chinchorro mummies has been a budding focus of scientific investigation. Vivien Standen, director of physical anthropology research at the university's San Miguel de Azapa Museum, has studied the Chinchorro mummies for the past decade. She says that Chinchorro mummies are not just significant because of their age, but because they break all of the old rules about mummies. …