Mummies: "Postcards" From the Dead

National Geographic News
May 10, 2002

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"Mummies have always spoken to us on some deep, primal level, and we are simply unable to leave them alone," says Heather Pringle, a science journalist from Vancouver, Canada, and author of The Mummy Congress: Science, Obsession, and the Everlasting Dead.

"Mummification is closest to [immortality]. It is a way of keeping something of us for future generations, " she says.

Mummies recently rescued from below the streets of an urban settlement in Lima, Peru, were so well preserved that many of them still had their hair, eyes, and other soft tissue intact. "They are a superb postcard from the Inca people of 500 years ago," says the chief scientist of the excavation project, Guillermo Cock.

The more than 2,000 mummies of men, women, and children, and the excellent condition of their clothing and artifacts buried with them, are expected to yield so much information that Cock predicts Inca history will be rewritten. The story of the Lima mummies will be featured in a new National Geographic Television documentary that premieres in the United States on May 15 (see below for details).

Is that why we're fascinated by mummies? Because they are postcards from a very distant past, putting faces on people who lived centuries ago? Or is that we are morbidly fascinated with the dead? Whatever the reason, mummies have spawned a great number of books and movies.

Mummies are largely associated with Ancient Peru and Egypt, but many other cultures preserved the bodies of their dead—and some still do.

The oldest known mummies date back 7,000 years. They were found in northern Chile near Arica, a port town of 160,000 at the edge of the Atacama Desert.

A National Geographic Television documentary, Inca Mummies: Secrets of a Lost World, premieres in the United States, Wednesday, May 15, 9 p.m. ET on PBS.

National Geographic Resources on Mummies

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