<p><strong>Preserved by one of Earth's driest climates, a long-buried corpse in <a href="http://travel.nationalgeographic.com/travel/countries/chile-guide/">Chile</a>'s <a href="http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/print/features/world/south-america/chile/atacama-text">Atacama Desert</a> retains centuries-old skin, hair, and clothing (file picture). </strong></p><p><strong>Naturally dehydrated corpses like this probably inspired the region's ancient Chinchorro people to actively mummify their dead, scientists speculate in a new study</strong><strong>. The practice, researchers suggest, took off during a time of natural plenty and population growth, when the Chinchorro were better able to innovate and develop culturally.</strong></p><p>Living in fishing villages along the coasts of Chile and <a href="http://travel.nationalgeographic.com/travel/countries/peru-guide/">Peru</a>, the Chinchorro had begun mummifying skeletons by 5050 B.C., thousands of years before the <a href="http://travel.nationalgeographic.com/travel/countries/egypt-guide/">Egyptians</a>. Archaeologists have long wondered how the practice—and a related cult of death—arose, with some speculating it had been imported from the notably wetter Amazon Basin (<a href="http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/ngm/0308/feature3/map.html">regional map</a>).</p><p>"Our study is one of the few to document the emergence of social complexity due to environmental change"—in this case, climate shifts that desiccated the Atacama, study leader <a href="http://www.bio.puc.cl/academicos/10874-pablo-marquet">Pablo Marquet</a> said.</p><p>"Until now, most of the emphasis has been on how environmental change triggers the collapse of societies," said Marquet, an archaeologist at Catholic University in Santiago, Chile.</p><p>(Read more about the <a href="http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/1995/03/chinchorro-mummies/arriaza-text">Chinchorro mummies</a> in <em>National Geographic </em>magazine.)</p><p><em></em></p><p><em>—Ker Than</em></p>

Natural Wonder

Preserved by one of Earth's driest climates, a long-buried corpse in Chile's Atacama Desert retains centuries-old skin, hair, and clothing (file picture).

Naturally dehydrated corpses like this probably inspired the region's ancient Chinchorro people to actively mummify their dead, scientists speculate in a new study. The practice, researchers suggest, took off during a time of natural plenty and population growth, when the Chinchorro were better able to innovate and develop culturally.

Living in fishing villages along the coasts of Chile and Peru, the Chinchorro had begun mummifying skeletons by 5050 B.C., thousands of years before the Egyptians. Archaeologists have long wondered how the practice—and a related cult of death—arose, with some speculating it had been imported from the notably wetter Amazon Basin (regional map).

"Our study is one of the few to document the emergence of social complexity due to environmental change"—in this case, climate shifts that desiccated the Atacama, study leader Pablo Marquet said.

"Until now, most of the emphasis has been on how environmental change triggers the collapse of societies," said Marquet, an archaeologist at Catholic University in Santiago, Chile.

(Read more about the Chinchorro mummies in National Geographic magazine.)

—Ker Than

Photograph by Enrico Ferorelli, National Geographic

Pictures: Death-Cult Mummies Inspired by Desert Conditions?

Surrounded by naturally preserved corpses, a South American people may have been inspired to make their own elaborate mummies, a new study says.

Read This Next

Is your favorite ‘green’ product really eco-friendly?
Why Noah’s Ark will never be found
The 10 best compact cameras, according to Nat Geo

Go Further

Subscriber Exclusive Content

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet