Chile’s famous Chinchorro mummies, the oldest in the world, added to the UNESCO World Heritage List

The Chinchorro mummies of northern Chile, the oldest in the world deliberately preserved by humans, have been added to the UNESCO World Heritage List.

Found in the early 20th century, the mummies are more than 7,000 years old and predate the better-known Egyptian mummies by more than 2,000 years.

During the 44th session of the World Heritage Committee, held online from Fuzhou, China, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization announced on Tuesday that it had added the “settlement and artificial mummification of the Chinchorro culture” to its prestigious list. .

“UNESCO confirms at the international level, through various experts, that the settlements and artificial mummification of the Chinchorro culture has an exceptional value, that it has global importance,” Chilean anthropologist Bernardo Arriaza told AFP.

According to a statement on the UNESCO website, added three sites related to Chinchorro mummification: Faldeo Norte del Morro de Arica and Colón 10, both in Arica, and Desembocadura de Camarones, a village about 100 kilometers to the south.

The Chinchorro were fishermen and hunter-gatherers who lived in southern Peru and northern Chile more than 7,000 years ago. Three sites related to their mummification practices, all near the town of Arica, have been added to the UNESCO World Heritage List.

Together they testify to a culture of marine hunter-gatherers who lived from about 5450 BC to 890 BC on the arid and hostile northern coast of the Atacama Desert in the northernmost part of Chile.

Sites associated with the Chinchorro mummies of northern Chile, some 2,000 years older than the better-known mummies in Egypt, have been added to the UNESCO World Heritage List

Sites associated with the Chinchorro mummies of northern Chile, some 2,000 years older than the better-known mummies in Egypt, have been added to the UNESCO World Heritage List

“The property presents the oldest known archaeological evidence of the artificial mummification of bodies with burial sites containing both artificially mummified bodies and some that have been preserved due to environmental conditions,” added UNESCO.

The corpses preserved “possess material, sculptural and aesthetic qualities that are believed to reflect the fundamental role of the dead in Chinchorro society.”

Tools made of mineral and plant materials have also been found at the sites, as well as simple instruments made of bone and shells “which enabled intensive exploitation of marine resources.”

Analysis of bone chemistry and discarded shell piles suggest that 90 percent of the Chinchorro’s diet was seafood.

A thick head of black hair was sewn onto the scalp and the corpses were then painted red or black.  Babies seemed to get the most graceful treatments, leading some experts to believe mummification was a means for parents and families to mourn their early deaths

A thick head of black hair was sewn onto the scalp and the corpses were then painted red or black. Babies seemed to get the most graceful treatments, leading some experts to believe mummification was a means for parents and families to mourn their early deaths

More than 7,000 years ago, the Chinchorro were fishermen and hunter-gatherers in an area where the desert and the Pacific Ocean meet in what is now southern Peru and northern Chile.

a mummy sported a mustache-like dotted line above his upper lip, believed to be the oldest direct evidence of tattooing in the Western Hemisphere.

The mummification process involved removing the organs, intestines and tissue, then tearing off the skin and reassembling the corpse using sticks and animal hair.

The Chinchorro mummies are the oldest in the world known to have been deliberately preserved by humans.  Corpses were usually painted red or black using dirt, pigments, manganese and iron oxide

The Chinchorro mummies are the oldest in the world known to have been deliberately preserved by humans. Corpses were usually painted red or black using dirt, pigments, manganese and iron oxide

A thick head of black hair was sewn onto the scalp and the corpses were then painted red or black – using dirt, pigments, manganese and iron oxide.

More than 300 Chinchorro mummies have been discovered so far, including red, black and bandages.

More than 300 Chinchorro mummies have been discovered so far, including red, black and bandages

More than 300 Chinchorro mummies have been discovered so far, including red, black and bandages

‘These bodies are very finely crafted by specialists. There’s a subtlety, a creativity of these early populations,” said Arriaza, director of the Chinchorro Center at Tarapaca University in Arica.

Unlike the Egyptians, who reserved mummification to royals, the Chinchorro “systematically dismembered and reassembled the bodies of deceased men, women and children from across the social spectrum,” according to UNESCO.

Experts have also speculated that mummification was a way to prevent corpses from terrifying the living, especially since the Chinchorro didn't bury their dead very deeply.

Experts have also speculated that mummification was a way to prevent corpses from terrifying the living, especially since the Chinchorro didn’t bury their dead very deeply.

Chinchorro mummies on display at the San Miguel de Azapa Archaeological Museum in Arica

Chinchorro mummies on display at the San Miguel de Azapa Archaeological Museum in Arica

It is still not entirely clear what purpose mummification served in Chichorro culture or cosmology.

Experts have previously speculated that it was a way to prevent corpses from frightening the living, especially since the Chinchorro didn’t bury their dead very deeply.

‘Because it’s very dry, corpses don’t decompose’, ecologist Pablo Marquet of Chilean Catholic University told The World in 2012. “So you stick around.”

But Arriaza has theorized that high levels of arsenic in the water could have led to miscarriages and high infant mortality, and mummification was “an emotional response from parents faced with these painful losses.”

Children and babies seemed to undergo the most extensive mummification treatments.

The mummification process involved removing the organs, intestines and tissue, then pulling the skin off and reassembling the corpse using sticks and animal hair.

The mummification process involved removing the organs, intestines and tissue, then pulling the skin off and reassembling the corpse using sticks and animal hair.

“They painted them, they dressed them, and every day this technique became more refined,” Arriaza said.

The World Heritage Committee on Tuesday announced 13 new sites added to the list in total, including the ancient city of Dholavira, India; the seaside town of Nice, France; the prehistoric Jomon site in southern Hokkaido, Japan; Sudanese-style mosques in northern Ivory Coast; and Speyer, Worms and Mainz in Germany’s Upper Rhine Valley, home to a vibrant Jewish community between the 11th and 14th centuries.

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