Could arsenic poisoning have led to the development of Chilean mummification techniques?
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.Interesting how something as seemingly minor as a trace chemical in the water could have led to a cultural revolution.
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.