Early studies done by Manuel Farinha dos Santos provide a backdrop to new scientific research, which suggests that the oldest mummies are located in Europe.
During the 1960s, the archeologist, who died in 2001, took pictures of 13 skeletons buried 8,000 years ago in southern Portugal. And according to recent studies done on the photos, Europe may hold the record of having the oldest mummy instead of Africa or South America.
Changing the Old Narrative
After analyzing the graves in Sado Valley, the researchers concluded that at least one of the 13 bodies must have been mummified to facilitate easy transportation to the burial ground. Also, the clear-cut signs that other bodies buried may have been mummified suggest that the mummification must have been a common practice in the region.
Although there has been proof of extensive mummification practices in Egypt, dating back 4,500 years ago, this newly identified mummy in Portugal is the oldest ever to be discovered. This new record also beats the age of mummies found in Chile’s Atacama Desert by 1,000 years.
At any rate, mummification is quite common in dry conditions like the deserts in Minya province. However, it isn’t easy to achieve the same in Europe, where wetter conditions cause the mummy tissues to degrade over time.
“It’s very hard to make these observations, but it’s possible with combined methods and experimental work,” said Peyroteo-Stjerna, the lead author of a study on the discovery.
The latest buzz on mummification comes from the photos taken by the Portuguese archeologist who passed away in 2001.
The researchers on the new study improved on the photographs taken by Farinha dos Santos. It was found that the pictures of the dugout remaining from the Sado Valley in the early 1960s showed burials from the middle stone age.
“Although some documentation and hand-drawn maps of the site were held in the National Museum of Archaeology in Lisbon, these photographs were previously unknown and gave archaeologists a unique opportunity to study the burials,” said Peyroteo-Stjerna.
On the reconstruction of the burial sites, the scientists observed that the armed and legs of one of the bodies had been forcefully moved, suggesting that the body had been tied with (now-disintegrated) bindings that were hardened after the individual’s death.
Furthermore, the bones, particularly the bones of the arms and feet, we still articulated even after the complete decomposition of the body. These bones ideally should fall apart on typical burials. Lastly, signs of decomposition due to soil movement were absent – indicating that the volume of the body had been shrunk. As a result, the surrounding sediment filled the voids.
“Taken together, these signs indicated that the body had been mummified after death; the individual was likely deliberately desiccated and then progressively made smaller by the tightening of the bindings.” She concluded.
Ancient Mummification Techniques
Peyroteo-Stjerna said, “The assessment of the ancient burials also relied on findings from human decomposition experiments conducted at the Forensic Anthropology Research Facility at Texas State University, where one of the researchers had studied.” She then went on to add that “Those experiments on recent cadavers showed which steps ancient people likely took while mummifying the individual in the Sado Valley.”
Research on the study proposed the likelihood of the dead body being trussed up and placed on an elevated structure to allow decomposition fluids to drain away from further contact with the body.
Others also proposed that fire had been used to dry the corpses. The bindings on the arms and legs were steadily tightened, allowing the body to maintain anatomical integrity while undergoing its transformation into a mummy.
Peyroteo-Stjerna added, “While evidence from other ancient skeletons from the same site had suggested those bodies were treated in the same way, those specimens do not show the same combination of evidence.” She then continued, emphasizing that “If some of the dead were brought to the Sado Valley sites from elsewhere to be buried, as the researchers suggest, then mummification — which resulted in much smaller and lighter dead bodies — would have made them easier to transport.”
To round it up, Michael Parker Pearson, an Archaeologist of University College London, commented via an email on the findings, “So it is very exciting to see the practice recognized elsewhere in Europe.” He then wrote that “Suggestions of 10,000-year-old mummifications had been found at El Wad and Ain Mallaha in Israel, and there were signs of mummifications 30,000 years ago at Kosteni in Belarus. These sites are just crying out for the type of analysis carried out in this new study.”
Feature image credit: Peyroteo-Stjerna et al/European Journal of Archaeology