Not Like the Egyptians

You don’t need much to mummify a body, really, despite the chemical baths and plastination currently available. Keeping the body in very low humidity generally does the trick, though lack of oxygen or very low temperatures also work. We may not know as much about most of the cultures that gave as the mummies mentioned below as we do about the Ancient Egyptians, and not all mummies are an outcome of religious beliefs, but that doesn’t make them any less fascinating. The explosion of headlines over every new discovery attests to that.

Dry mummies are by far the most common, because dryness crops up in caves and deserts and was the go-to process for ancient peoples wishing to preserve bodies. The Guanche people of the Canary Islands embalmed their dead, as did the people of the Kabayan area of the Phillipines, a number of Melanesian cultures, and several South American peoples—the Chinchorro , the Chachapoya, the Inca, and the people of Paracas. Also deliberate are the mummies of eighteenth-century German nobles and the Buddhist mummies of Asia, some of whom helped the process along through diet.

The Saltman of Iran

The Saltman of Iran

There are a number of accidental indigenous mummies in the southwestern United States, others in Lebanon and South Africa, and, of course, Egyptian mummies that pre-date the rituals. There’s also the Saltman of Iran, the mummies of Guanajuato province, Mexico, and the mummies of Encarnación de Díaz, also in Mexico.

A group of dry mummies have made headlines recently, mostly because DNA analysis has advanced far enough to know their heritage for certain. Despite being found in the Xinjiang region of China, the Tarim mummies are tall with red and brown hair, and have a number of DNA markers that point to them being Caucasian. There is controversy, though, over which Euroasians these people are related to and whether they were really indigenous to the area. I can’t say how many other dry mummies have had DNA run on them, apart from several of the famous Egyptian mummies and some of the South American ones.

Qilakitsoq child

Qilakitsoq child

The Inca also left us accidental mummies in the form of child sacrifices. Because the children were on mountain tops, they’re either freeze-dried or frozen when discovered. Other frozen mummies include Ötzi, a Copper Age man discovered in the Italian Alps in 1991; the Scythians of Siberia; the Qilakitsoq mummies, six women and two children found frozen in Greenland in 1972; Kwaday Dän Ts’inchi (long ago person found), discovered in a northern British Columbia glacier in 1999; and three mummified bodies from the Franklin expedition, discovered on Beechey Island in 1984.

The final category of mummies are the bog bodies of northern Europe—mostly Scandinavia and Ireland. Many bog bodies date from the Iron Age. These mummies often experienced violent deaths, though we don’t know for sure whether they were murdered, executed, or sacrificed. Others likely drowned from being sucked into the peat. However they died, the bogs’ cold, anoxic environment preserved their bodies and turned them a spectacular red-brown. The preservation works so well that not only can we still see pores and hairs, but we also have their clothes and final meals. The acidity of the bogs tends to dissolve bones, however. The most famous are Tollund Man, the Yde Girl, and Lindow Man.

Tollund Man

Tollund Man

You’ll notice that I’ve only mentioned the Ancient Egyptians in passing. I’ve omitted them because they’re much better known, to the detriment of the Tarim mummies, bog bodies, Peruvians, and so on, and because they’ve enough had medical and DNA tests to fill a whole other blog post. Perhaps sometime I’ll write that one, but not today. Today’s for celebrating all the other mummies the world’s given us.

(References used but not linked to above found at Mummy Tombs.)

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