Book Report: Mummies Reflect Primal Urge to Extend Human Life

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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.

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