At least 2,000 years before the ancient Egyptians began mummifying their pharaohs, a hunter-gatherer people called the Chinchorro living along the coast of modern-day Chile and Peru developed elaborate methods to mummify not just elites, but the ordinary as well--men, women, children, even fetuses. Radiocarbon dating as far back as 5050 B.C. makes them the world's oldest mummies.
However, after staying remarkably well-preserved for millennia, in the past decade many of the Chinchorro mummies have begun to degrade rapidly. To discover the cause and a way to stop the deterioration, Chilean preservationists turned to a Harvard University scientist with a record of solving mysteries around threatened cultural artifacts.
Nearly 120 Chinchorro mummies are housed in the collection of the University of Tarapaca's archaeological museum in Arica, Chile. That is where scientists saw that the mummies were starting to degrade at an alarming rate. In some cases, specimens were turning into black ooze.
Preparing the mummies "was a complicated process that took time --and amazing knowledge," says Marcela Sepulveda, professor of archaeology In the Department of Anthropology and the Archeometrlc Analysis and Research Laboratories at the University of Tarapaca
The Chinchorro first would extract the brains and organs, then reconstruct the body with fiber, fill the skull cavity with straw or ash, and use reeds to sew it back together, connecting jaw to cranium. A stick kept the spine straight and tethered to the skull. The embalmer restored the skin In place--sometimes patching the corpse together...