Egyptian Mummification Goes Back More Than 6,000 Years, Scientists Say

The elaborate chemical techniques began to develop in the Neolithic age, well before writing.

Ruth Schuster
Will Dunham
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Funerary textile with outer wrapping of animal skin dated from the late Neolithic period, ancient Egypt.
Funerary textile with outer wrapping of animal skin dated from the late Neolithic period, ancient Egypt.Credit: Reuters and Jana Jones, Univ. of York
Ruth Schuster
Will Dunham

It has long been known that ancient Egyptians mummified their dead, not only kings and high officials and some commoners but sacred animals, such as cats, as well. The process was fundamental to that civilization's belief in eternal life. Now it turns out the habit began more than 6,000 years ago, much earlier than originally believed.

Embalming substances contained in funerary textiles from the oldest-known Egyptian cemeteries, from the Neolithic and pre-dynastic eras, showed mummy-making from as early as about 4300 BC, researchers reported on Wednesday.

The embalming agents were infused into the linen used to wrap the corpse to provide an antibacterial and protective barrier.

Even so, these newly-analyzed remains are not the earliest example of anthropogenic mummification. That distinction belongs to mummies found in the Atacama desert plateau in South Africa, which dates back more than 9,000 years.

"The ancient Egyptians believed the survival of the body after death was necessary in order to 'live again' in the afterlife and become immortal. Without the preserved body, this was not possible," said Stephen Buckley, an archaeological chemist at Britain's University of York who led the scientific research.

This early process was not as elaborate as later ones used on the bodies of powerful pharaohs and other elites. It was however more than 1,500 years earlier than Egyptian mummification had been thought to have started.

There had been evidence of mummification involving remains from around 2600 BC of Queen Hetepheres, mother of Khufu, the pharaoh who commissioned the Great Pyramid at Giza outside Cairo. There also is evidence of linen that contained resin being used to wrap bodies around 2800 BC. The latest findings however throw the start of the process back by millennia.

Mummification preceded writing

The researchers were amazed to find that the plant, animal and mineral components used in preparing the mummies at the cemeteries in Mostagedda in central Egypt were essentially the same embalming "recipe" used thousands of years later at the pinnacle of the ancient Egyptian civilization. It evidently passed on through oral tradition.

"I was surprised that the prehistoric Egyptians, who lived in a tribal society 1,000 years before the invention of writing, were already in possession of the empirical science that would later become true mummification," said Jana Jones, an Egyptologist at Macquarie University in Australia, who studied the mummies.

Biochemical analysis identified the components from funerary textiles retrieved from the cemeteries during excavations in the 1920s and 1930s (which are held in Britain's Bolton Museum). The "recipe" consisted of a plant oil or animal fat base, with smaller amounts of a pine resin, an aromatic plant extract, a plant gum and petroleum – which in itself may attest to some very ancient trade. These substances have anti-bacterial properties that would have impeded natural decay of the bodies, and led to the elaborate mummification processes of later millennia.

Even then, mummification demanded rare and costly ingredients, some from distant lands, Jones explained. Pine resin in the Mostagedda textiles may have come from southeastern Turkey, many hundreds of miles away.

The practice of mummification reached its peak during the era known as the New Kingdom, between about 1550 BC and 1000 BC, when powerful pharaohs reigned -including Ramses II and Thutmose III, as well as the "boy king" Tutankhamun, better known as "King Tut." It only stopped as Christianity began to influence the region, around AD 400. Some of the new Christians continued it in some form until it ended completely with the arrival of Arabs spreading the new religion of Islam in AD 642.

The study appears in the scientific journal PLOS ONE.

It bears mention that "mummification" in this respect is deliberate, in contrast to the so-called "Iceman," or "Otzi," a frozen body dated to 3,300 BC who was found in melting ice in the Alps. Study of his remains has led to the gruesome speculation that he was murdered but in any case, his body was not appreciatively wrapped in linen or anything else, let alone cleansed and embalmed. He was simply preserved by the elements.

So leaving Otzi aside, another example of deliberate mummification that dates back to the dawn of civilization is the Chinchorro mummies, found in northern Chile and southern Peru, which go back as much as 9,000 years.

Like their Egyptian counterparts, the Chinchorro mummifiers would gut the body, remove the brain and replace the missing organs with plant material or animal hair. In one case, the skull of a Chinchorro male (dubbed "Acha Man") dated to 7,000 BC was found with some reed matting adhering to the fossilized skin of one cheek. The Egyptian mummies are stereotypically wrapped in bandages, but that practice seems to have been rarer on the South American plateau, being found in just three cases – of babies.

As mummification techniques became more sophisticated, so did funerary decoration: Mummy mask of Lady Ka-Nefer-Nefer, 3200 years old.Credit: Reuters
The head of a clay-wrapped Chinchorro mummy, found in Northern Chile, and older than the oldest known Egyptian mummy.Credit: Pablo Trincado, Wikimedia Commons
The body of "Otzi," found sticking out of a melting glacier. He proved to date from 5,300 years ago but was a natural mummy, not an anthropogenic one.Credit: Reuters



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