arsenic & ancient mummies

The daughter & I love reading Elizabeth Peters’ ‘Amelia Peabody’ books: lovely rollicking yarns with a leavening of actual historical events, likeable characters, and a delightful, gentle poke at Victorian standards (of writing & other behaviour). And, as they’re set in Egypt, the occasional mummy. We’re fascinated by mummies as well 🙂

So I’ve done a bit of reading around the subject, & I know that the Egyptians weren’t the first, or the only, people to practice mummification of their dead. But one society, the Chinchorro people, did things differently. While in some societies mummification was generally reserved for adults from the elite classes, the Chinchorros started with their infants.

And they used different methods – none of those spices & resins, & linen bandages beloved by the Egyptians. Instead the Chinchorros generally used one of two main methods of mummification. In the earliest known – a 6-month-old male infant who died about 6,800 years ago – someone removed the internal organs & the head of the dead child, packed the body cavity with animal skins, covered the body with clay, & fashion a new head & death mask from clay before decorating it with paint & some of the child’s hair. Later mummies in this style also had sticks placed along spine & limbs to strengthen them, but tended to keep their heads – after the brain was removed. (The second method involved rather more extreme treatment: removing & drying the skin, defleshing the bones, & removing the brain from the skull before putting everything back together, strengthening the body with sticks along the spine, arms & legs, & covering it all with clay to get back something like a normal body shape.)

Archaeologists have long wondered why it was children, & not adults, who first received this extensive post-mortem treatment. Obviously the dead individuals must have had a lot of significance, but why so much attention to the after-death preservation of infants & children?

In the latest issue of Science Heather Pringle (who wrote the fascinating book The Mummy Congress) describes a new hypothesis put forward to answer this question: the Chinchorros were drinking water containing dangerously-high levels of arsenic. (This isn’t unusual, in the sense that arsenic is found naturally in a range of geological formations & can enter water via erosion – we get it in the Waikato River, for example, & the source is geothermal.) And arsenic can contribute to higher-than-normal rates of miscarriage & infant mortality: as Pringle notes, [this[ hazard came to public attention in Chile in the 1960s after the city of Antofagasta starting drawing water from a river that turned out to be laced with 860 micrograms of arsenic per litre – 86 times higher than the World Health Organisation’s current provisional guideline. During the peak exposure from 1958 to 1965, infant mortality rates in Antofagasta soared by as much as 24%. From 1958 to 1961, 4% of newborns and 9% of all older infants died in the city.

But why the mummification? The arsenic hypothesis, put forward at a recent meeting of the Society for American Archaeology, suggests that such a high mortality rate in young children would have sparked an intense emotional response among the Chinchorros, as I think it would in our society as well. (And the evidence is there for arsenic poison: hair samples from the mummies contain significantly elevated levels of this element.) Perhaps the elaborate mummification process was a way in which bereaved parents could continue to keep some part of their children with them after death?

But remember – this isn’t a hypothesis that we have any way of testing: there’s no way we can ask the Chinchorro about their underlying feelings & motivations. So arsenic poisoning as cause of death – yes, probably. But mummification as a way of enshrining the dead – maybe/perhaps. (And science is like that – it can’t give absolute answers!)

H.Pringle (2009) Arsenic and old mummies: poison may have spurred first mummies. Science 324(5931): 1130 doi:10.1126/science.324_1130

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