Scans un­veil se­crets of world's old­est mum­mies

Kuwait Times - - LIFESTYLE -

The world's old­est mum­mies have just had an un­usual check-up. More than 7,000 years af­ter they were em­balmed by the Chin­chorro peo­ple, an an­cient civ­i­liza­tion in mod­ern-day Chile and Peru, 15 mum­mies were taken to a San­ti­ago clinic last week to un­dergo DNA anal­y­sis and com­put­er­ized to­mog­ra­phy scans. The Chin­chorro were a hunt­ing and fish­ing peo­ple who lived from 10,000 to 3,400 BC on the Pa­cific coast of South Amer­ica, at the edge of the Ata­cama desert. They were among the first peo­ple in the world to mum­mify their dead. Their mum­mies date back some 7,400 years-at least 2,000 years older than Egypt's.

Now, re­searchers are hop­ing to use mod­ern med­i­cal tech­nol­ogy to re­con­struct what they looked like in life, de­code their genes and bet­ter un­der­stand the mys­ter­ies of this an­cient civ­i­liza­tion. The 15 Chin­chorro mum­mies, mostly chil­dren and un­born ba­bies, were put through a CT scan­ner at the Los Con­des clinic in the Chilean cap­i­tal. "We col­lected thou­sands of images with a pre­ci­sion of less than one mil­lime­ter," said chief ra­di­ol­o­gist Marcelo Galvez. "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," said Galvez.

Re­searchers are also hop­ing to learn more about how the Chin­chorro mum­mi­fied their dead. The Chin­chorro, who ap­par­ently had a com­plex un­der­stand­ing of hu­man anatomy, would care­fully re­move the skin and mus­cles of the de­ceased.

Us­ing wood, plants and clay, they re­con­structed the body around the re­main­ing skele­ton, then sewed the orig­i­nal skin back on, adding a mouth, eyes and hair. A mask was then placed over the face. The re­sult looks like some­thing in be­tween a statue and a per­son-eerily life­like even af­ter thou­sands of years.

All in the fam­ily

Mum­mi­fi­ca­tion was an in­ti­mate process for the Chin­chorro, said Veronica Silva, the head of the an­thro­pol­ogy de­part­ment at Chile's Na­tional Mu­seum of Natural His­tory. "The fam­ily it­self would make the mummy," she told AFP. The ear­li­est mum­mies were un­born fe­tuses and new­borns, she said. The mum­mies were all made us­ing the same ba­sic process, but each one shows unique "tech­no­log­i­cal and artis­tic in­no­va­tions," she said.

It was a process that evolved over time. The new­est mum­mies are the most elab­o­rate. Some 180 Chin­chorro mum­mies have been dis­cov­ered since 1903. All were found out­doors, placed near the beach. The Chin­chorro ap­par­ently did not build pyra­mids or any other struc­tures to house them.

In fact, the Chin­chorro civ­i­liza­tion left no trace be­sides its mum­mies. "We are ef­fec­tively talk­ing about the old­est ar­ti­fi­cially mum­mi­fied bod­ies in the world," said Silva. "The Chin­chorro mum­mies date to 7,400 years ago. That is to say, this sys­tem... ex­isted 2,000 years be­fore the first mum­mi­fi­ca­tions even be­gan in Egypt."

Sur­prises have al­ready be­gun to emerge from the CT scan­ner. The small­est mummy, it turns out, was not a mummy at all. "There was no bone struc­ture in­side. It was just a fig­urine, pos­si­bly a rep­re­sen­ta­tion of an in­di­vid­ual who could not be mum­mi­fied," said Silva.

Re­searchers also took skin and hair sam­ples from the mum­mies to an­a­lyze their DNA, in hopes of iden­ti­fy­ing ge­netic links with the mod­ern-day pop­u­la­tion. "We want to bet­ter un­der­stand their way of life-from their diet to whether we Chileans still carry their genes," said Silva. — AFP

— AFP pho­tos

Chilean an­thro­pol­o­gist Veronica Silva shows one of the mum­mies from the an­cient Chin­chorro cul­ture at the Na­tional Mu­seum of Natural His­tory.

Chilean an­thro­pol­o­gist Veronica Silva shows one of the mum­mies from the an­cient Chin­chorro cul­ture at the Na­tional Mu­seum of Natural His­tory in San­ti­ago, on De­cem­ber 16, 2016.

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