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Friday, November 25, 2005 

Could arsenic poisoning have led to the development of Chilean mummification techniques?



Maybe.
Living in the harsh desert of northern Chile's Pacific coast more than 7,000 years ago, the Chinchorro fishing tribe mysteriously began mummifying dead babies — removing internal organs, cleaning bones, stuffing and sewing up the skin, putting wigs and clay masks on them.

The Chinchorro mummies are the oldest-known artificially preserved dead, dating thousands of years before Egyptian mummies, and the life quest of the archaeologists who study them is to discover why this early society developed such a complex death ritual.

"I was reading a Chilean newspaper that talked about pollution and it had a map of arsenic and lead pollution, and it said arsenic caused abortions. I jumped in my seat and said, 'That's it,'" Arriaza said.

Arriaza says high levels of arsenic in the water in the region, which persist to this day, meant more premature births, stillbirths, spontaneous abortions and higher infant mortality among the Chinchorro.

"We've always known that the Camarones (the area where the mummies are found) had a lot of arsenic, and the first mummies were children," he said.

He posits the Chinchorro began preserving dead babies to express personal and community grief and later began mummifying adults as well, and the practice became more elaborate.
Interesting how something as seemingly minor as a trace chemical in the water could have led to a cultural revolution.

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About me

  • I'm Tara C. Smith
  • From Iowa, United States
  • I'm a mom and a scientist, your basic stressed-out, wanna-have-it-all-and-do-it-all Gen Xer. Recently transplanted from Ohio to Iowa, I've spent most of my life in the midwest (with 4 years of college spent out east in "soda" territory). My main interest, and the subject of my research, is infectious disease: how does the microbe cause illness? What makes one strain nasty, and another "avirulent?" Are the latter really not causing any disease, or could some of those be possible for the development of chronic disease years down the road? Additionally, I've spent a lot of time discussing the value of teaching evolution, and educating others about "intelligent design" and other forms of creationism. My interest in history of science and medicine is also useful as a way to tie all of the above interests together. [Disclaimer: the views here are solely my own, and do not represent my employer, my spouse, that guy who's always sitting by the fountain when I come into work, or anyone else with whom I may be remotely affiliated.]
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