Preserved by one of Earth’s driest climates, a long-buried corpse in Chile’s Atacama Desert retains centuries-old skin, hair, and clothing.
Naturally dehydrated corpses like this probably inspired the region’s ancient Chinchorro people to actively mummify their dead, scientists speculate in a new study. The practice, researchers suggest, took off during a time of natural plenty and population growth, when the Chinchorro were better able to innovate and develop culturally.
Living in fishing villages along the coasts of Chile and Peru, the Chinchorro had begun mummifying skeletons by 5050 B.C., thousands of years before the Egyptians. Archaeologists have long wondered how the practice—and a related cult of death—arose, with some speculating it had been imported from the notably wetter Amazon Basin.
“Our study is one of the few to document the emergence of social complexity due to environmental change”—in this case, climate shifts that desiccated the Atacama, study leader Pablo Marquet said.
“Until now, most of the emphasis has been on how environmental change triggers the collapse of societies,” said Marquet, an archaeologist at Catholic University in Santiago, Chile.