Book Report: Mummies Reflect Primal Urge to Extend Human Life

John Roach
for National Geographic News
July 9, 2001
Most humans yearn for immortality. This desire to extend human life is the root of mummification all around the world, says a science journalist who explores the subject in a new book.

"Mummification is closest to [immortality]," says Heather Pringle, a science journalist from Vancouver, Canada. "It is a way of keeping something of us for future generations."

In her book, The Mummy Congress: Science, Obsession, and the Everlasting Dead, Pringle examines human fascination with the well-preserved dead. She follows experts as they dissect cadavers in search of clues to the origin of infectious diseases, test the hair of mummies for traces of drugs, and examine ancient human DNA to trace patterns of migration.

"Each culture had specific religious beliefs, but the primal urge to extend human life as best as possible lay at the bottom of the desire to mummify the dead," says Pringle.

Preservation Not Always Deliberate

The oldest known mummies, which date back to 7,000 years ago, were found in northern Chile near Arica, a port town of 160,000 at the edge of the Atacama Desert. Pringle begins her examination in Arica, where in 1998 she attended the Third World Congress on Mummy Studies.

It was the latest in a series of international meetings, held every three years, at which several hundred experts gather to exchange knowledge on the study of preserved cadavers and what can be learned from it. The next congress will be held from September 4 to 10 in Nuuk, Greenland.

Most of the mummies in Arica, which are known locally as the Chinchorro, are the bodies of children. Bernardo Arriaza, a professor of physical anthropology at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas, told Pringle that the parents of the Chinchorro probably invented mummification to extend the lives of their children.

But not all mummies have been intentionally preserved.

Experts define a mummy as any ancient cadaver whose soft tissue has partially or wholly resisted decay. "It isnt just dead folks wrapped in linen," says Pringle.

Johan Reinhard, a National Geographic explorer-in-residence, has recovered several mummified bodies from the tops of Andean peaks. The individuals were apparently sacrificed to the mountain gods and preserved by the frozen climate.

In England and northern Europe, thousands of mummies have been recovered from mossy bogs. Some theories suggest that the bodies were those of societal outcasts who were executed for their transgressions. Pringle prefers the theory that they, too, were victims of sacrifice.

Enduring Fascination

No matter how the bodies came to be preserved, people today are too curious to leave mummies undisturbed. "We can learn so much from the ancient dead," says Pringle. "They are portals in time, showing us who we were and where we came from."

One DNA study, for example, challenged prevailing ideas about when the Chinese first mingled with Europeans. In the 1970s, hundreds of 4,000-year-old mummified Caucasian bodies were found in northwestern China—the so-called Xinjiang mummies.

"A very popular Chinese theory is that there was very little contact between China and Western Europe before the Silk Road was thriving, around 200 B.C.," says Pringle. "But with the Xinjiang mummies, it now appears contact happened much, much earlier than anyone had thought."

The powerful desire to extend human life is not just a thing of the past, says Pringle. In Salt Lake City, Utah, a company called Summum Mummification offers human-preservation services for a fee that starts at around $60,000. The cryonics industry—deep-freezing a person at death in the hope that the individual can someday be revived—is thriving.

In some ways, people today are driven to seek immortality while they are still alive. Pringle says, "The fitness industry and plastic surgery industry are pre-mummification"—ways of preserving the human body as long as possible within a lifetime.

Any bodies that do survive through the ages are unlikely to remain undisturbed through the millennia, says Pringle. As she writes in the final paragraph of her book: "Mummies have always spoken to us on some deep, primal level, and we are simply unable to leave them alone."

The Mummy Congress: Science, Obsession, and the Everlasting Dead was published in June by Hyperion Books.

© 1996-2008 National Geographic Society. All rights reserved.