Here’s a supplemental clip to our last post that gives a nice summary about the significance of arsenic poisoning and the Chinchorro’s mummification practices.
Max Uhle was the German scholar who first found the twelve mummies within the Atacama desert coastline in 1917. Since 1983, much time and research has been devoted to delving deeper into the cultural context surrounding the Chinchorro (meaning “raft” or “fishing net” in Spanish) (Arriaza, 1995, pg 5).
The Chinchorro cemeteries themselves seem to be small, but dense. There hasn’t been much evidence of grave goods, which in surrounding areas later on, would suggest a ranking system within the culture (Arriaza, 1995, pg 37). However, most objects found within the graves were made from shells, such as spoons and containers, as well as polished pebbles (Arriaza, 1995, pg 54). It should be noted that because the Chinchorro practiced cemetery reuse, it is very difficult to determine exactly which goods go with which individuals (Arriaza, 1995, pg 125).
Through radio-carbon dating, we can determine that the entire length of time the Chinchorro people inhabited this desert being from approximately 5,860 BC to 1720 BC (Arriaza, 1995, pg 13). Also indicative through radio-carbon dating is that the use of the different mummy styles which are a good representative of Chinchorro culture chronology (Arriaza, 1995, pg 18). This is in contrast to what several archaeologists originally speculated. They initially thought that the fishing tools of the Chinchorro would give chronological information; however, the tools just seem to differ according to local fishing strategies (Arriaza, 1995, pg 18) Arriaza explains the relationship between the chronological record, the mummies and the Chinchorro culture best, “in Chinchorro studies, mortuary treatment represents a more powerful expression of group identity and ideology than artifacts do” (Arriaza, 1995, pg 18).
In more recent studies, lab analysis of hair samples pulled from mummies have identified what could have been the tragic downfall to the longevity displayed by the Chinchorro culture (Handwerk, 2010).
Although arsenic is nearly invisible to our senses, it came to the attention of Chile in the 1960’s when the high infant mortality rate was linked with the discovery of high arsenic levels in river water. Later, when reading about this toxicity to infants, it occurred to Ben Arriaza, the principle researcher on the Chinchorro people, to test the remains for arsenic levels (Pringle, 2009). His intuitionwas correct.
Arriaza tested hair strands from 45 Chinchorro mummies, representing three different geographic areas of where they were excavated. Using mass spectrometry methods, arsenic concentrations can be measured in the body because it persists in the keratin of human hair and nails (Arriaza 1275). Significant toxic levels measure 1 -10 µg/g, and the World Health Organization lists 10 µg/g and above as poisonous. In his experimental results, Arriaza found that 9 out of 10 mummies had arsenic levels about 1 µg/g and one-third of these had above the substantially dangerous 10 µg/g (1277).
But how were they poisoned? Arsenic and other minerals leach and spread naturally from volcanic and other earthen formations, usually through water, wind, and rain erosion. Arsenic is most dangerous through chronic ingestion, so the Chinchorro must have been unknowingly consuming small doses nearly daily. Since water resources continued to be contaminated around Chile into recent years, the Chinchorro must have also been using this poisonous water. Their main food, which also grew using the arsenic-laced water, included polluted seeds, aquatic plants, and seafood.
Wigs and hair are a distinct, and clearly important, feature of the Chinchorro mummies. The tested hair strands revealed that some of the hair did not belong to several of the original mummies. Some hair indicated that it came from different people, and even different geographic areas, which suggests that the Chinchorro explored their surrounding areas and other ecological niches (1277). Furthermore, Arriaza suspects that the numerous infant deaths gave rise to the intricate mummification methods as a way to cope and keep their children in their lives. Eventually, they extended this practice to all of the deceased (Pringle, 2009).
Arriaza, B. 1995. Beyond Death: The Chinchorro Mummies of Ancient Chile. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington.
Arriaza, B. Amarasiriwardena, D., Cornejo, L., Standen, V., Byrne, S., Bartkus, L., and Bandak, B. June 2010. Exploring chronic arsenic poisoning in pre-Columbian Chilean mummies. Journal of Archaeological Science. Volume 37:6. Pages 1274-1278.
Handwerk, B. 13 April 2010. Prehistoric Mummies Poisoned. National Geographic News. http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2009/04/100412-chile-oldest-mummies-poison-arsenic/
Pringle, H. 29 May 2009. Arsenic and Old Mummies: Poison May Have Spurred First Mummies. Science. Volume 324:5931. Page 1130.