Mummification is older than scientists thought

(ORDO NEWS) — Archaeologists have unearthed signs of mummification of 8,000-year-old bodies buried in the Sado Valley in Portugal. These, probably the earliest evidence of mummies, can tell a lot about the burial practices of the Mesolithic communities.

Mummification of the dead was probably an earlier and more common occurrence in prehistoric times than scientists thought. This conclusion was reached by a team of archaeologists from Uppsala University, Linneus University (Sweden) and the University of Lisbon (Portugal).

They examined 8,000-year-old hunter-gatherer burials in Portugal’s Sado Valley and found evidence of deliberate drying and positioning of bodies. An article about the discovery was published in the European Journal of Archaeology.

The earliest evidence of body mummification has been found among the Chinchorro hunter-gatherer people of Chile. Their mummies, about seven thousand years old, still preserved fragments of soft tissues. However, most of the mummies that have survived to this day belong to a later period: their age varies from several hundred to four thousand years.

The study of prehistoric mummies is complicated by the fact that in the case when soft tissues are not preserved, it becomes difficult to determine from the bones whether the mummification process took place. This often occurs in temperate and humid climates, such as in much of Europe, where archaeological sites have preserved little to no human remains other than bones.

Scientists examined photographs of the skeletal remains of 13 people discovered in the 1960s in the Mesolithic deposits of the Sado Valley. The researchers were able to reconstruct the positions in which the bodies were buried.

After that, they applied the approaches of archeotanatology and data from experiments on the decomposition of human bodies, provided by the Research Center for Forensic Anthropology, Texas State University (USA).

Archeotanatology is the discipline that studies human remains in archaeological sites. By analyzing the location of the bones in the graves and knowing how the corpse decomposes, scientists can reconstruct the history of the body and burial even after millennia.

Archaeologists have identified several signs that people’s bodies were indeed mummified. In many of them, the limbs were bent too much, and some parts of the skeleton were cut out. In addition, some bodies were located in unnatural positions – with legs bent in front of the chest.

During the decomposition of the body, the bones usually separate at the weakest joints, but these joints were preserved in the Sado burials.

According to scientists, this is due to the fact that not a fresh corpse was placed in the grave, but a dried mummy. Not only did this preserve the joints, but it also allowed the body to be highly flexed as the range of motion increased with the contraction of soft tissue volume.

All of these patterns may be the result of controlled and natural mummification. For a long time, the body was gradually dried up, which preserved its integrity, while it was given the desired position. When the process was completed, the mummy would be easier to transport, while maintaining its appearance and anatomical integrity.

The results of the study raise new questions about the burial practices of the Mesolithic communities. The discovery also underscores the great importance of burial sites, as the bodies of the dead had to be delivered intact to burial.

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