Can UNESCO status save the world’s oldest mummies?

In the Chilean desert, artfully preserved human remains are a symbol of local pride, but a changing climate threatens their existence.

In 1917, German archeologist Max Uhle was surveying the sun-zapped coast of the world’s driest desert when he came across a peculiar collection of human remains. Digging into the khaki-colored earth, he uncovered bodies deformed with sticks and reeds, their heads decorated with elaborate wigs and evocative masks of red and black clay. 

“Many corpses show post-mortal injuries such as the replacement of the head by another false one, breaking of the head with adequate mending, [and] straw arms or legs replacing the genuine ones,” wrote Uhle. 

These early humans, discovered in Chile’s Atacama Desert near the city of Arica, would come to be known as the Chinchorro mummies. The bodies of a dozen early hunter-gatherers—from populations that roamed the coastlines of northern Chile and southern Peru from about 7,000 to 1,500 B.C.—would be excavated, recorded, and then largely forgotten for another 50 years.

These long-dead Indigenous people are in the spotlight now. UNESCO placed the mummies and the Chinchorro settlement in present-day Chile on its World Heritage list in July 2021. A state-of-the-art museum to preserve and showcase them is in the works in Arica, a small coastal capital known for its surf scene. Climate change is threatening the mummies’ survival, so this recognition and preservation—and the tourism both could bring—may have arrived just in time.

Why the world’s oldest mummies are in Chile

Cultures from Africa to Asia mummified their deceased for thousands of years. The Chinchorro, though, are the oldest purposefully created mummies ever found, made some 2,000 years before ancient Egyptians wrapped bandages around pharaohs. They’ve remained under the radar because they weren’t buried in outsized pyramids or attached to empire-building societies with grand ambitions. Instead, the Chinchorro swathed all members of society—not just the elites—in reed shrouds before humbly (and shallowly) depositing them into the arid earth.

(Learn why Egypt’s royal mummies went on a road trip.)

“Most [places] we know associated with World Heritage tend to be mega-sites like Machu Picchu,” says Bernardo Arriaza, an anthropologist with the University of Tarapacá who spearheaded the UNESCO proposal. “The hunters and gathers have been less visible, and the sites themselves are less visible—they’re not monumental—so they are underrepresented.”

The Chinchorro first started mummifying their dead some 7,000 years ago near Caleta Camarones. The tiny fishing village 62 miles south of Arica is a shock of green amid the otherwise monochrome landscape of the Atacama. Squished into a valley where the Camarones River trickles into the Pacific Ocean, the town holds a sweeping crescent of golden sand, empanada restaurants, and Chinchorro gravesites.

Along a 20-mile-long stretch of road entering the Camarones Valley, travelers spot the most dramatic representation of the culture in the area: six monumental contemporary statues of Chinchorro, some as tall as 16 feet. They’re meant to help people visualize the unseen mummies still buried beneath the brown earth.

It was in this region that the Chinchorro developed their earliest mummification techniques around 5,050 B.C. The Atacama residents essentially skinned the deceased, removing muscles and organs before reshaping the bodies with sticks, reeds, and clay. Arriaza says this was meant to give the skeletons volume before artisans stitched them back together using either human or sea lion skin.

The anthropologist theorizes that natural arsenic in the Camarones River, a hundred times higher than modern safety levels, may have caused the accidental poisoning and preservation of unborn babies, triggering the Chinchorro’s ceremonial treatment of the departed. Most of the earliest mummies are babies and fetuses. By turning rotting corpses into ornamental objects, they could become “masters of the dead,” he explains, projecting a sense of immortality on the deceased and grieving with them long after they passed.

Where to see mummies

To get a closer look at the mummies, head to the San Miguel de Azapa Archaeological Museum and the small Colón 10 interpretation center in Arica, on the northern reach of the Atacama Desert. The pleasant city attracts surfers with brown-sugar beaches, history buffs with War of the Pacific battlefields, and hikers to the volcano-studded parklands above town.

Arica is also where the most advanced (and newest) Chinchorros were found beginning in the 1980s. Most were unearthed beneath the 455-foot-tall Morro de Arica hill, an imposing chunk of rust-colored rock overlooking the Pacific Ocean. The mummies discovered here–48 of which can be seen in situ beneath a glass floor at Colón 10—were typically swathed in ash paste and either black manganese or red ochre, which helped preserve them.

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The world’s largest collection of Chinchorro mummies rests nearby at the Azapa museum, open since 1967. The figures, some so small and stylized they look like gothic rag dolls, lie in white displays resembling glass-topped coffins. They’re not unlike Halloween scarecrows, torsos bursting with sticks and reeds and faces obscured by haunting masks.

There are roughly 300 mummies in the Azapa collection, but 90 percent of them are off view in a storage facility with no air conditioning or humidity control. The under-construction, 20 billion Chilean peso (about $24.7 million U.S. dollars) new museum is slated to open on an adjacent plot of land by 2024. It’ll be 5,000 square meters (53,820 square feet) in size and store the mummies at optimal humidity levels of between 40 and 60 percent.

Why climate change threatens mummies

The Atacama’s dry weather has helped preserve the Chinchorro mummies for thousands of years, but some have rapidly deteriorated in the past decade, their skin melting into black ooze. According to Harvard scientists, climate change is causing microorganisms to attack the mummies’ collagen.

Stronger El Niño currents are behind the region’s increasing humidity, meaning the mummies are endangered whether they’re in a museum or buried in the desert. South of Caleta Camarones, residents often spot fiber fragments, bones, and other Chinchorro remains tumbling down the peanut-colored hills. Jannina Campos, an archeologist at the Chinchorro sites, says, “every time it rains, the desert blooms with bones. They used to say it only happens once every 100 years, but because of climate change, it’s happening more often and getting stronger each time.”

Instead of removing the remains every time it drizzles, Campos simply registers the mummies, notes their coordinates, and buries them back in the hyperarid soil. “The moment you take this cultural material out of the ground, it begins to deteriorate,” she says, adding that, until the new museum is built, there isn’t space to store them anyway.

“A new museum with balanced environmental conditions will have a tremendous effect on preservation,” says Mariela Santos, who’s in charge of conservation and museums at the University of Tarapacá. She hopes it and the UNESCO recognition will help turn Chile’s northernmost Arica and Parinacota regions into a new cultural tourism hub.

Nicolás del Valle, the coordinator of the culture program for Chile at UNESCO, says that the recent developments are the beginning of a much larger process in Chile to give value to the Chinchorro. “There is a lot of work still to be done,” he explains, noting that, to increase the knowledge of Chinchorro culture around the world, the people living in their ancestral homeland have to appreciate and share their story.

Residents living alongside the sites in Arica still remember playing with the Chinchorro skulls they’d find in their backyards in the 1960s and 1970s. Now, people feel a sense of ownership. There are Chinchorro-themed restaurants and hotels. Creatives including artists (Paola Pimental), novelists (Patricio Barrios), and musicians (Grupo Raíces) draw inspiration from the mummies. Those who once unknowingly robbed graves are now the first to report graves being robbed.

“Over time, people have started to take the Chinchorro out of science and attach themselves to these first inhabitants of the Atacama Desert,” says Arriaza. “The community feels empowered; they feel like this is their own heritage and part of their identity.” 

Mark Johanson is a Chile-based journalist who covers travel, food, and culture. Follow him on Instagram and Twitter.

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