SANTIAGO – Chilean authorities want the Chinchorro mummies, the oldest in the world, declared part of the Heritage of Humanity, a recognition that would honor one of the country’s – and South American continent’s – longest-lived cultures.
Dating from between 5,000 and 2,000 B.C., the almost 300 mummies, which have been found from the southern Peruvian coast to northern Chile, exceed by almost two millennia their Egyptian counterparts and authorities hope in the coming years to receive the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) recognition as a World Heritage Site.
“The mummies come from an early hunter-gatherer society that survived in the world’s most arid desert and that were mummified at death over more than 3,500 years,” University of Tarapaca official Sergio Medina told EFE.
“The designation as part of the Heritage of Humanity would constitute a preservation tool. With that we would complete ... 40 years of research into all the human remains and materials that we have in the museums,” the researcher said.
Experts classify the mummies into three groups according to the mummification technique used and their age: Black Mummies (5,000-3,000 B.C.), Red Mummies (2,500-2000 B.C.) and Bandaged Mummies (2,000 B.C.).
Different theories have tried to explain the origin of the Chinchorro culture, with one suggesting that the people moved down from the northern coast region, another saying they came from the Amazon region or the Andes mountains.
Whatever their origins, the people settled – and mummies have been found – in the Lluta, Azapa and Camarones valleys.
Although the mummies are considered to be the world’s oldest “artificially prepared bodies,” Medina acknowledged that Egypt had a much more advanced civilization than the Chinchorro.
The Chinchorro mummies were discovered in 1917 – ostensibly by German archaeologist Max Uhle – but improper preservation techniques led to the deterioration of many of them, a process that has now been largely halted due to more careful humidity regulation.
UNESCO uses the 1972 Convention Concerning the Protection of World Culture and Heritage to protect and preserve cultural heritage deemed valuable to humanity around the world by declaring them so-called World Heritage Sites.