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.

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