The 8,000-Year-Old Human Skeletons From Portugal Are the World’s Oldest Mummies

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Top center depicts the skeleton's position upon excavation after two years and two months.Peyroteo-Stjerna et al/European Journal of Archaeology

The earliest human mummies may have originated in Europe rather than Egypt or Chile.

In the 1960s, an archaeologist, Manuel Farinha dos Santos, who died in 2001, photographed 13 skeletons buried in 8,000-year-old hunter-gatherer burial sites in Portugal’s Sado Valley.

According to a recent analysis of these hitherto unreleased pictures, the earliest human mummies may have originated in Europe rather than Egypt or Chile.

This is significant as, while mummification is simple and widespread in very dry environments, evidence for it is difficult to find in Europe, where far wetter conditions mean that mummified soft tissues rarely survive.

Rewriting the history 

The Portuguese archaeologist had worked on the remains in the early 1960s, and images he shot of the skeletal remains of thirteen people were recently unearthed. The authors of the new study developed these previously unseen images and unearthed black-and-white photographs of 13 Mesolithic, or Middle Stone Age, burials.

The researchers were able to reconstruct the positions in which the remains were buried thanks to these images, providing a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to learn more about burial ceremonies that took place eight millennia ago.

Reduction of the soft tissue volume during mummification. Source: Peyroteo-Stjerna et al/European Journal of Archaeology

The pictures were used to reconstruct the burials at the two sites, and the researchers noticed that the bones of one body were “hyperflexed”. This indicates that the body’s arms and legs had been moved beyond their natural limitations, implying that the body had been tied with now-disintegrated bindings that were strengthened after the individual’s death. Furthermore, the skeleton’s bones remained attached and in place following the burial, particularly the little bones of feet, which generally fall apart completely when a person decomposes, according to the findings of a study published in the European Journal of Archaeology.

When these and other clues were combined, they proved that the body had been mummified after death, possibly for reasons “linked to their curation and transport.” The researchers believe the person was deliberately dehydrated before gradually shrinking due to the tightening of the shackles. This process would have made the body easier to transport as it would be more contracted and substantially lighter.

Evidence from other ancient skeletons from the same location indicates that those bodies were treated similarly. However, those specimens do not demonstrate the same combination of evidence.

Mummification

Until today, the Chinchorro mummies of northern Chile had been the world’s oldest purposely preserved human remains, dating back 7,000 years. Meanwhile, as recently as 5,700 years ago, the ancient Egyptians were embalming mummies.

According to this new study, the earliest documented mummification activities occurred at Sado Valley; however, it should be noted that the Sado Valley bodies are not in a mummified state anymore as soft tissue is no longer preserved and the bodies are completely skeletonized.

Study Abstract: 

Recently rediscovered photographs of the remains of thirteen individuals buried in the Sado Valley Mesolithic shell middens of Poças de S. Bento and Arapouco, excavated in 1960 and 1962, show the potential of revisiting excavation archives with new methods. The analysis, which applies the principles of archaeothanatology and is enriched by experimental taphonomic research, confirmed details concerning the treatment of the dead body and provided new insights into the use of burial spaces. Some bodies may have been mummified prior to burial, a phenomenon possibly linked to their curation and transport, highlighting the significance of both the body and the burial place in Mesolithic south-western Portugal.

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