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The term mummy describes the corpse of an organism where decay is arrested for a considerable period of time and a semblance of life-like appearance is preserved. Some natural environments can mummify animal and human bodies spontaneously, thereby preserving them over great periods of time. Mummification practices by humans occur worldwide and may represent significant processes designed to preserve a body for important cultural, religious, or political purposes. The exceptional preservation of soft tissues can provide detailed information about ancient environments, cultures, and the evolution of disease not always achievable by traditional interpretations of archaeological assemblages.
Mummification involves the transformation of a once living body or tissue into a state of arrested decay by regulating or denying the water, temperature, or biochemicals necessary for complete decomposition. In the context of the term mummy, the process of mummification also infers the preservation of enough soft tissue to resemble its living morphology for a prolonged postmortem interval. Mummification may be classified broadly into two categories: anthropogenic (where humans promote the mummification process) and spontaneous (where natural processes occur to cause the preservation without human intervention).
The origins of the word mummy lie in the rocks of 1st-century AD Persia, where deposits of natural bitumen were called mumiya after an Arabic word for “wax.” The black tarry substance became popular for medicinal purposes, and by the 13th century the natural deposits could not satisfy burgeoning European demand. So, the black resins found in mummified Egyptian bodies were substituted; thus, the term mumiya was transferred to the resin and later to the ancient human remains. Mummies still found themselves in the service of humans, but in a purpose far removed from that of their original internment thousands of years earlier.
The earliest known example of anthropogenic mummification is from the Chinchorros culture of northern Chile dated at 7,800 years of age. Since at least that time, humans have practiced mummification on every inhabited continent of the earth. Although mummification is widespread historically and geographically, it remains a highly anomalous human mortuary practice compared with the more common methods of burial and cremation for reasons of health and economy. This fact, combined with recognition that the practice of mummification was usually an expensive undertaking in terms of energy, time, and materials, surely indicates the power of motivations for its use by different cultures. Perhaps the source of public wonder and scientific rigor toward anthropogenic mummies is the question of purpose they inherently generate.
Reasons for Mummies
Many cultures share the belief that a deceased person’s vital force or spirit remains with or in the vicinity of the person’s body for some period after death. Most mortuary practices reflect a desire to pacify or hasten the departure of such spirits, but some others use the mummification process to exploit and regulate this force. For example, in Aleutian Islands culture, the bodies of dead leaders would be mummified and stored in caves or homes so that the living could continue to consult the remains for advice or prophesies, and some parts of the bodies would be carried on hunting trips because the entrapped vital force was expected to enhance success.
A motivation for anthropogenic mummification that has persisted even from historical times is that of war trophies such as “headhunting,” where boiling and drying the heads of human enemies causes them to shrink and preserve so that they may be carried easily and displayed over time, instilling status to the wearer and other tribal members. Other values may include magical properties for rituals and security from the deterrent effect to hostile neighbors. It is documented that from the time of early Inca expansion, the Sausas of Peru sometimes skinned their military captives, filling the skin with ashes and sewing it up to erect “skin mummies” in their temples as war trophies.
Mummification as used by Inca, Egyptian, and Roman cultures may be understood from the motivation of political power. Monarchs would install themselves as spiritual deities to increase their authority and power, but such claims of royal divinity then required a series of rituals to instill and support such belief in the public’s mind. Perpetuating the remains of a dead king via mummification made the associated divine body available to assist and support the structures of theocracy, linking the currently reigning monarch with the immortal gods by the deceased divine king for the perceived benefit of the people. Continuing display of the mummified remains in overtly visible tombs, such as the Egyptian pyramids, acted to remind the population of the deity status and authority of the king’s office. Later there evolved a more personal motive for mummification after the erosion of royal power made the expensive process socially accessible. There arose a personal status from being able to afford mummification in addition to any other religious belief of extension to the afterlife.
Anthropogenic mummification practices have not been used exclusively on human bodies, and those used on other bodies may be preserved by methods similar to those employed for humans. Massive numbers of different animals were mummified by Egyptian guilds exclusively for sale to the public for use in totemic rituals, and pets were also mummified and buried in tombs with their owners. In many other cultures, the practice of sacrificing and mummifying animals may be considerably different in intent from that of mummifying humans, for example, to attract the animal’s spirits for assistance with hunting or to appease the spirit of slaughtered prey.
Mechanisms of Mummification
Immediately after death of a living body, highly regulated enzymes in cellular tissue become deprived of vital regulatory controls and begin to autodigest and liquefy the surrounding cells. This process of self-destruction, called autolysis, is the first of a series that acts to break down once living tissue into constituent molecules and return them via soil, water, and atmosphere to the biochemical pool from which all life originates. Mummification can interrupt this cycle by regulating or stopping different parts of the decomposition process.
Because postmortem decay is an enzymatic process and enzymes require an aqueous medium, drying of body tissues is an effective inhibitor of decay and is the most common form of both spontaneous and anthropogenic mummification. This happens naturally in hot dry environments such as are found today in the Atacama region of northern Chile, where one can witness animal carcasses, locally reported to be hundreds of years old, so well preserved as to appear only weeks dead. Desiccation may also take place in cold dry environments by sublimation (“freezedrying”), as evidenced by spontaneously mummified seals exposed in ice-free areas of Antarctica that are radiocarbon dated to be 2000 years old. Because such hyperarid environmental conditions have been intermittently active on the earth for hundreds of millions of years, prehistoric animal mummies have occurred and may be fossilized in geologically rare events. Several dinosaur specimens with abundant fossilized skin and other soft tissues suggest that conditions favorable for spontaneous mummification were active during the Cretaceous period.
Anthropogenic mummification harnesses natural processes to promote desiccation and effect preservation. Evisceration was commonly employed to remove rapidly liquefying organs and promote airflow within the abdomen to hasten desiccation. The drying of a corpse was helped by positioning it in a well-ventilated area, such as the mouth of a cave or on a raised platform, but in wetter climates the process could be forced by exposing the body to fire. A corpse could also be stuffed with desiccants such as cloth and grass, or in areas with suitable ores it could be enveloped in sodium carbonates for a period of time to effect water transfer from the tissues. After desiccation, some cultures wrapped bodies in cloth soaked with botanical resins or sealed them in containers to shelter the remains from subsequent rehydration. There are some (mostly anecdotal) historic accounts of mummification by immersion in honey, including the remains of Alexander the Great and the Agesipolis king of Sparta in Libya, but modern experiments have shown that although honey can desiccate small samples of tissue via an osmotic effect, this has not yet been proven for use on whole bodies.
A different but spectacularly effective type of mummification occurs when a dead body is enclosed within a peat bog containing sphagnum moss. Compounds in the peat act to make calcium unavailable to enzymes and destructive bacteria and thereby halting their destruction of soft tissue, while the same process of calcium removal causes skeletal elements to dissolve away. These so-called “bog people” have the finest details of soft tissue preserved and are some of the best examples of humans dating back to the Neolithic.
Decomposition is also affected when temperature is lowered to levels that essentially suspend enzyme action, and this may halt decay for very long periods. Spontaneously mummified Siberian mammoths recovered from glacial ice show very good gross morphology after 44,000 years, and the 5,000-year-old corpse of a man buried by a glacier contained delicate features such as eyeball tissue and tattoos of the skin. Ancient Inca people took advantage of low temperatures and the sublimating environment found on high Andean mountain peaks to mummify bodies, a technique reflected in the modern mummification practice where liquid nitrogen is used to snap-freeze bodies in the effort toward long-term preservation.
Contemporary mummification is also achieved by embalming, which in modern practice predominantly involves intraarterial injection of chemicals such as formaldehyde to temporarily preserve a body until family members may view it before burial or cremation. The remains of some historical figures, such as Vladimir Lenin, Eva Peron, and Mao Tse Tung, have been preserved in such ways for political or other purposes. The use of arsenic in embalming fluid formulas was once popular and effective, but eventually it was discarded due to its toxicity and potential to confound the postmortem identification of arsenic poisoning in murder victims.
Abuse and Use
Throughout antiquity, looters have targeted mummies to recover precious adornments and to trade whole mummies to collectors. These practices denigrate the integrity of specimens, but modern humans have at times devised even more destructive fates. Mummies have suffered from being “harvested” and pulled apart to recover their linen wrappings for paper manufacture, or the remains have been ground down to provide substances for medicinal purposes. Even animal mummies have not been exempt; for example, 200,000 mummified cats recovered from an Egyptian necropolis site were transported to England and processed as fertilizer.
Such loss should be lamented. The exceptional preservation of soft tissues in mummies can provide detailed information about ancient cultures and historical events not always achievable by traditional interpretations of archaeological assemblages. The discovery of fish tapeworm ova within gut contents of South America’s Chinchorro mummies not only confirmed archaeological suggestions of marine subsistence, but also confirmed that the Chinchorro people habitually ingested uncooked fish. The mummified remains of some polar explorers have allowed postmortem autopsies decades after the events, in some cases determining an unlikely cause of death such as lead poisoning or parasites developed by ingesting uncooked polar bear meat. Sometimes the objects and chemicals associated with a mummified body may provide information such as the identification of embalming agents and adornments that may indicate their provenance and extent of trade between cultures of the region at the time. Mummies are also being used increasingly in the area of health, where their retention of pathologies in soft tissue is being used to observe the rate of change in disease with time. Tracking the evolutionary path of disease between ancient people and modern humans may provide clues to control current or future afflictions.
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