Today’s Wonder of the Day was inspired by Gerson from Pasadena. Gerson Wonders, “Where can you find a mummy?” Thanks for WONDERing with us, Gerson!
Many archeologists spend their time digging through ancient sites searching for artifacts from the past, whether they are old bones or pieces of clay pottery. In certain parts of the world, though, archeologists sometimes uncover more than just pieces of the past.
Sometimes they find nearly intact whole bodies of human beings and animals. What are we talking about? Mummies, of course!
The mummies scientists find aren't the kind you see in cheesy scary movies. They won't rise up with their arms extended and begin to chase you. Real mummies are real people and animals whose bodies have been preserved through a special process called mummification.
Most people associate mummies with ancient Egypt, and there's a good reason for that. The ancient Egyptians are well-known for mummifying humans and even animals, especially cats. Ancient Egyptians believed it was necessary to preserve the body after death, because the physical body would still be needed in the afterlife.
The ancient Egyptians certainly perfected the process of mummification, creating as many as 70 million mummies over the course of 3,000 or more years. However, they weren't the first civilization to mummify bodies.
Scientists have found mummies of humans and animals on every continent. Mummies that have been dated to thousands of years before the ancient Egyptians have been found in both North America and South America.
On the north coast of what is now Chile in South America, the Chinchoros fishing tribe mummified their dead as early as 5,000 B.C. The tradition of preserving the dead lasted through the Inca civilization of western South America until the 1500s or 1600s A.D., when the Spanish conquered Inca and put an end to the tradition.
Mummies have been found in the "four corners" region of the U.S. (where Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, and Utah meet), and are believed to belong to the Anasazi people. Ancient people of the Aleutian Islands (off the coast of Alaska) also mummified their dead.
Scientists believe the first Egyptian mummies likely occurred by accident. Bodies buried in shallow graves in sandy soils were likely subjected to such hot, dry conditions that bacteria and fungi that cause decay were unable to grow.
Eventually, ancient Egyptians developed a process, called embalming, to create mummies purposefully. The goal was to preserve as much of the body as possible by preparing the body in such a way that decay would be prevented or minimized.
The mummification process in ancient Egypt took approximately 70 days and was often only available to the wealthy because it was a lengthy and expensive process. To begin, internal organs were removed from the body. Since the heart was thought to be important in the afterlife, it was usually left inside the body. The body would then be rinsed with wine, filled with natron (a form of natural salt), and left to dry for about 40 days.
Once dried, the body would be stuffed with cloth or padding to make it more lifelike. Various perfumes and make-up would also be applied. Finally, the body would be coated with resin and wrapped thoroughly from head to toe in linen strips. A single human body might require as much as 150 yards of linen!