Artificial Preservation of Human Remains: Early Mummifiers Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Artificial Preservation of Human Remains: Early Mummifiers

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Who really came first?

When the word 'mummy' is mentioned, one might be forgiven for thinking that it was the Egyptians who first invented this technique of preserving corpses. However, despite the fact that the Egyptians popularised mummification, credit for being the first to practice mummification goes to the Chinchorro, the sophisticated fishing tribe inhabiting the northern coast of what is now Chile, who were embalming their dead as early as 6000 BC1. There are two phases of mummy-making amongst the Chinchorro. The early phase encompassed 5000 - 3000BC, during which time 'black mummies' were produced. The embalmers first disassembled the body by removing the skin, head and limbs, defleshing the corpse and removing the internal organs. The internal organs were treated to prevent decay, and the bones were dried with hot ashes before the body was reconstructed, reinforced by twigs tightly bound with reeds. Wooden supports were often placed along the spine and limbs, and the body cavity was filled out with fibre or feathers. Once the body had been reassembled, the skin was replaced and patched up wherever was required with sea lion or pelican skin before the entire body was coated with ash paste and the face covered with a clay mask which was subsequently painted with black manganese so that each corpse looked alike.

Later, around 2500 - 2000BC, the Chinchorro developed a new technique of body preservation, this phase marked by the production of 'red mummies' – bodies that had been painted with red ochre instead of manganese. By this time they had abandoned the practice of disassembling bodies, electing instead to remove the internal organs via various incisions in the torso and shoulders. (The corpse was nevertheless still subjected to decapitation). A wig made from tassels of human hair and a clack clay hat were also fashioned for the corpse; the skin was seldom returned to the body during this phase.

The mummification trend would spread and evolve among the ancient Peruvian tribes including the Nazca and Chiribaya folk in the desert, and the Amazonian Chachapoyas 'Cloud People'. Most of these corpses were mummified sitting down, with knees drawn under the chin and hands positioned near the face, with the jaws hanging open from the passing of rigor mortis. (And if you're thinking this sounds like Edvard Munch's 'The Scream', you're absolutely right - he was inspired by a Peruvian mummy on display at a Paris museum). Dehydration of the body was natural: the upright position of the bodies allowed fluids to be drained by gravity, while the flesh was preserved and protected in decorated cloth.

But were the Chinchorro really the first to mummify their dead? There are scientists who say that the Melanesians are the real pioneers of mummification, although there is as yet no physical evidence of these. The Australian aboriginal mummies were sun-dried in a sitting position and placed on an elevated platform (either the branches of a tree or a raised wooden platform) to prevent dogs from getting at them; their orifices were sometimes sewn shut and their bodies smoked; their fat was removed from their bodies, mixed with red ochre and smeared on the skin. Apparently, the purpose of mummification was to keep relatives around for a little longer - for ten days mourners kept silent vigil, and guards were posted beside the corpse to fan off flies; the body was then interred, and the skull claimed by the nearest relative as a drinking cup.

The people living on the islands north of Australia had a more unusual, if grotesque, way of preserving their dead. The cadavers were allowed to sit and bloat for a few days before being placed in a canoe and cast away from land. Somewhere along the line the skin would be peeled off and the corpse eviscerated (and the cavity filled with palm pith) and then de-brained before being brought back to shore and left to dry, tied to a wooden frame. The people made sure the body dried out properly by making small holes in the knees, elbows, hands and feet to allow drainage of bodily fluids; as a macabre twist, the tongue, palms of the hand and soles of the feet were removed and presented to the surviving spouse. When the mummy had fully dried (after several months) it was decorated with seashell eyes, grass and seeds, painted with red ochre, and then it moved back in with its husband or wife - serving as a centrepiece item in the house.

The Incas and freeze-drying

Unlike many other practitioners of mummification, the Incas relied heavily on Mother Nature when it came to preserving their corpses. Their habit of sacrificing human lives at the top of high mountains produced 'Ice Mummies' - mummies created by freeze-drying - usually surrounded with riches, supposedly to accompany the dead to the gods. However, the Incas also had methods of artificial preservation, and apparently treated their preserved dead like living gods, 'feeding' and clothing them, parading them at important festivals and consulting them in times of misfortune - a practice that the Spanish conquistadors of 1532 were uncomfortable with, and immediately put a stop to by destroying as many of these mummies as they could find...after the dead had been plundered of their gold.

The Egyptians

The Egyptians, with their beliefs of a somatic afterlife wherein a dead person would carry his body with him into the underworld, were the trendsetters for the technique of body preservation through the process of drying.

Although mummification was practised for the most part of early Egyptian history, the creation of the earliest mummies was most probably accidental. Because of the annual flooding of the Nile Valley, the Egyptians had to bury their dead in the dry, hot sand or rocky regions of the surrounding deserts. Some ancient bright-eyes must have noticed that the dry conditions had favoured the dehydration and subsequent preservation of some bodies buried in these shallow pits for no doubt knowledge of this came into play during the Fourth and Fifth Dynasties2 (c2600BC) by which time Egyptian religion had evolved to revolve around the achievement of life after death, and the Egyptians (probably) began mummifying their dead intentionally so that every dead, mummified Egyptian would become a second Osiris3.

The mummification technique basically consists of two stages: embalming and wrapping. Following the death of a person, his body is taken into a tent known as the Ibu or 'Place of Purification', where it is washed with palm wine and rinsed with water from the River Nile. All the internal body parts representing the initial sites of decay are quickly removed, starting with those in the torso. These are subsequently washed and dried with a salt called natron4 before being placed in alcohol solutions in Canopic jars. (Later, when the ritual had evolved to returning the organs to the body, empty jars continued to be buried alongside the body to symbolically protect the organs). The brain is smashed and scrambled and carefully pulled out through the nostrils with a long hook but, unlike the other internal organs, is later tossed out. The heart, believed to be the residence of the spirit5, is left untouched, because the dead person would need his spirit in the afterlife.

The body is then covered and packed with natron, and left to dry out for about forty days6. When the body has desiccated completely, it is washed with Nile water again and covered with oils to maintain elasticity of the skin, and then fleshed out by stuffing sawdust, leaves and linen into the body so that it would resemble a human being instead of beef jerky, so that the dead person's ka and ba, which had left the body at the time of death, could recognise their body and be re-unified with it. Having completed the embalming process, priests would wrap the body in hundreds of yards of linen: first, the head and neck and digits, separately, and then the limbs, with amulets placed in between the layers to ward off mishaps. Liquid resin is painted on the linen bandages to glue the layers together. The resulting form is then covered with a piece of cloth bearing the painting of the god Osiris, and then the shroud goes on, strapped in place with linen strips.

In a startling display of overt determination to preserve the body, the corpse is placed in not one but two coffins, one inside the other, and is deposited into a burial chamber, which is subsequently sealed.

(Unfortunately for the Egyptians, this method of preservation only extended to the mortal shell of the person - namely the skin, bones and hair - as the natron and resins conferred only temporary protection to the flesh and organs against decomposition. If getting into the afterlife meant having everything with you, then no akhs would have made it into the Underworld at all.).

Mummification was initially so prohibitively expensive that only nobility could afford to be mummified; the majority of the populace was consigned to the necropolises. By 1550BC, however, the mummy industry was booming and practically anybody who could afford it was mummified and promised eternal life. The tradition stopped sometime between the fourth and seventh Century AD when many Egyptians converted to Christianity - by which time Egypt had made over 70 million mummies.

Other practitioners of mummification

Mummy-making cultures are scattered across the globe. Among these are the Palomans who, as early as 4000BC were salting their corpses to prevent decay and wrapping them in mats of reed (and then burying them under their houses); people of the Aleutian Islands of Southwest Alaska, who desiccated their dead with herbs and grasses, and preserved the corpses in cool, dry caves; and the cave-dwelling goat-herding Guanches of the Canary Islands, whose mummification techniques suggest a link with the ancient Egyptians; the Ibaloi tribe in the Kabayan island of the Philippines, whose practice of mummifying their dead tribal leaders spanned 1200 to 1500AD7, and was curtailed by Spanish colonists; and the Scythians (a multi-tribed people who inhabited southern Russia from the eighth to the fourth Century BC), who are renowned for their mummified kings.

There is a good account of what happens to the Scythian corpses, written by the Greek writer Herodotus. According to him, the cadaver's viscera was cleaned out and the body cavity filled with a preparation of chopped cypress, frankincense, parsley-seed and aniseed, before the opening was sewn up and the body was encased in wax. The corpse was thereafter placed on a wagon and carted around to the various tribes – and each member of the populace, upon viewing the corpse, was required to sever a portion of his ear, cut his hair short, make a circumference cut on his arm, pierce a hole in his forehead and nose, and (ouch) drive an arrow all the way through his left hand. After every villager had suffered pain, the body was taken to Gerrhi (the most remote area of the Scythian territory) for burial. The king's servants followed him in death, being killed on the spot by strangulation. As if this massacre wasn't enough, another sacrifice would take place on the first anniversary of the king's death, whereby fifty of the dead king's best attendants were killed (strangulation again) along with the fifty most beautiful horses in the royal stables. Their viscera were subsequently removed and their abdomens stuffed with chaff and sewn shut. The horses were buried in a large circular grave around the king's burial mound, posed galloping; a mummified attendant was posed upon each horse, staked down through the spinal cord to the beast. The end-product: a dead king surrounded by a mummy cavalry, protecting him in death.

The strange tale of auto-mummification

A mummy is usually made from a corpse by priests or people specialising in the trade – but what of people who mummify themselves? Strange as it may sound, there is a form of self-mummification practised by Buddhist priests as far back as the first millennium, which has continued to modern times. This grotesque form of auto-preservation was apparently pioneered by the Buddhist priest and mystic, Kuukai, who died at the temple complex of Mount Koya on 23 April, 835 – and has been emulated by an estimated sixteen to twenty-four priests of the Shongin thought of esoteric Buddhism in Japan until the practice was outlawed towards the end of the 19th Century8. Today, these mummies (called sokushinbutsu) can be found on the main island of Honshu, preserved at a number of Buddhist temples.

This act of auto-mummification is in fact an elaborate, prolonged form of suicide drawn out over the course of about a decade. The first step towards becoming a Buddhist mummy is a change of diet, whereby the priest undertaking the task is restricted to eating nuts and seeds found in the forests around the temple, during which time he is to subject himself to physical hardship in all forms. By the end of a thousand days, almost all the fat in his body will have been eliminated.

The next thousand days involve an even more drastic change of diet – the priest now being allowed to eat small amounts of bark and roots from pine trees. Because humans were never designed to eat pure cellulose, this makes a living husk of a man of the priest, who will now have the outward appearance and hydration level of a skeleton. Towards the end of this second phase, the priest also begins drinking a special tea made from the sap of the urushi tree – which, while it makes excellent lacquer for bowls and furniture, is also poisonous to humans. The tea, which induces vomiting, sweating and urination, serves both to dehydrate the priest even further and to create a body so toxic that anything that tried to eat the priest's body after he was dead would be similarly poisoned.

The priest's final days (about another thousand) are spent entombed in a stone room barely large enough for a man to assume the lotus position of meditation. Air is conveyed into the room via a tube, and is supplied only for as long as the priest is alive to ring a bell. When he finally perishes, the tube is removed and the tomb is sealed.

Of course, the fact that there are only about two dozen mummies of this sort bears witness to the fact that the ideal conditions9 were not achieved for every priest who practised auto-mummification; however, out of respect, these 'failures' were sealed back into their tombs after their conditions had been revealed10. Those who had succeeded were immediately raised to the rank of Buddha.

Why attempt to mummify oneself? Or rather – if one were so eager for suicide, why choose a method that causes incredible suffering to oneself? Simply because this is religion and not suicidal masochism.

The Buddhists believe that everything in this world that can be perceived by the five senses is simply an illusion that prevents a person from seeing the truth11, which is that a person is part of a greater being that stands separate and beyond the world we perceive. As long as a person remains blind to this truth, he will be continually reborn in and endless series of illusionary lives; to break this vicious circle, Buddhists monks aim to separate themselves from the world so that at death they become One with this greater being who is Buddha, and thus achieve Nirvana.

Thus there are several sects of Buddhism whose priests are trained to deny the importance of their physical bodies through the endurance of various hardships, the principle being that as a priest becomes more like Buddha, the less he will be concerned about himself. In doing so, devotees are also desensitised of their fear of death – although, conversely, they do not seek it either, as you might think of the priests who perform this feat. Rather, auto-mummification is practiced by men of senior age to push the limits of their ability to ignore their physical manifestation – and also to leave a monument of their beliefs for those who come after them.

1Unlike the Egyptians, however, everybody in the Chinchorro tribe was mummified after death, although the treatment varied from body to body. 2There are archaeological findings that indicate the Egyptians at Hierakonpolis had been mummifying their dead as early as 3400BC by wrapping them in linen impregnated with resin; however, they didn't nail the viscera problem until about a thousand years later.3The God of the River Nile, Osiris, was brutally murdered by his evil brother Seth, who chopped the body into pieces and cast them into the river. Osiris' grieving widow Isis fished out the remains, however, and pieced them together again, thus simultaneously resurrecting Osiris and giving birth to the resurrection theme that would resurface in many later religions.4Hydrated sodium carbonate.5The Egyptians believed in three forms of spirits: The ka, or 'double', which would remain in the tomb and thus needed the offerings and objects placed in it, the ba, or 'soul', which was free to travel, and the akh, or 'spirit', which would make the journey to the underworld, get judged and (if his heart was lighter than a feather) make it into the afterlife.6All fluids and rags used in the embalming process are later buried with the body.7And whose mummies were dried by a glowing fire and internally smoked.8The number of priests who have attempted this feat is much higher; however, not everybody who desires to become a mummy actually succeeds.9One Garth Haslam (aka Oniko) who was on a pilgrimage to Yamagata to see some of these mummies reported that a sacred spring on the mountain Yudono, whose waters and mineral deposits are believed by many priests to be of medicinal value, and have been ingested by some of these auto-mummification practitioners, was found to contain lethal amounts of arsenic.10Apparently the tombs were opened some time after the priests had died; however, it is not stated anywhere how long the other priests waited before doing so.11Doesn't this carry 'Matrix' overtones?

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