Chinchorro mummies declared World Heritage by UNESCO

The Chinchorro mummies are the oldest known mummies in history: over 7,000 years old. They have been found mostly in the North of  Chile, in Arica. This is the seventh cultural site in Chile to be named a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.

UNESCO has included the settlement and mummies of the Chinchorro culture in the Arica and Parinacota region in the list of World Heritage Cultural Sites. The announcement was made during the 44th session of the World Heritage Committee in China, which opened on July 16 and runs through July 31.

This is the seventh Chilean World Heritage Site, along with Rapa Nui National Park, the Churches of Chiloé, the Historic Quarter of Valparaíso, Humberstone and Santa Laura Saltpeter Offices, Sewell mining town, and the Qhapaq Ñan Andean road system.

Minister of Culture, Arts, and Heritage Consuelo Valdés said that this title “is an incentive to continue working on presenting our magnificent millenary heritage,” and that “it adds a typology that’s underrepresented on the World Heritage List.”

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The Chinchorro people

The Chinchorro are believed to have settled in what today is the south of Perú and north of Chile from 7020 BCE to 1110 BCE. Their civilization was primarily centered around Arica and the Azapa, Camarones, and Lluta valleys. They were hunters and fishers.

They are known for their funerary practices and mummification processes, in which they skinned the dead, removed their organs, and stuffed the dry bodies with dirt, plants, feathers, wool, or clay.

The oldest tattoo found in the Americas also belongs to a Chinchorro mummy from 2300 BCE.

Oldest mummies

According to researchers, the Chinchorro mummies are over 7,000 years old, which makes them the oldest mummies found to date – even older than the Egyptian mummies.

Three different types have been found from the Chinchorro culture: black, red, and bandaged mummies.

 Black mummies are so named because their bodies were painted with manganese after the mummification process.

Red mummies, which are more recent – from about 2500 BCE, had a more advanced process, in which the organs were removed through careful incisions, the body was dried and afterwards, stuffed and painted red.

The bandaged mummies were mostly children; and, after the bodies were emptied and dried, they were covered in strips of skin, and their heads painted black and their bodies red. 

Humidity turns them to sludge

Over the past few years, the Chinchorro mummies have been deteriorating, due to humidity levels too high for preservation. Some reportedly turned to black sludge. After investigation, it was determined that the humidity in the air was allowing bacteria to grow and damage them. Since then, humidity levels have been adjusted and monitored to avoid deterioration.

Over 300 Chinchorro mummies have been found in Chile, all of them in different states of conservation. In one case, a group of children in Arica had a school field trip of a lifetime when they found a mummy.

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