Modern day funerary practices are something we rarely pay attention to, unless, of course, we are in the midst of dealing with a death ourselves. Though there are some notable outliers, most funerals now consist of simple practices such as cremation or burial. However, when you take a dive back into history many cultures had wildly different practices burial based on what they deemed acceptable ways to honor and mourn their deceased loved ones. One burial practice that was common across many cultures, however, was mummification.
Mummification, or the practice of drying or desiccating a body in order to preserve it, has been around for thousands upon thousands of years, and its products, mummies, have remained at the forefront of people’s imaginations ever since. Modern books and movies, such as the Goosebumps series by R.L. Stein and The Mummy series starring Brendan Fraser, have kept this fascination alive in popular culture for generations. Though when most people think of mummies now it is in the contexts of these books and movies, or others like them, mummification historically was usually a way to give great honor to the dead. Today, we will explore mummies and their cultural significances around the world.
Mummies across the atlas
When most people think of mummies, the first ones that come into mind are also by far the most famous: Egyptian Mummies. Mummification was an incredibly important ritual for Ancient Egyptians, and the tradition was deeply steeped in their religious beliefs and cultural status symbols. The Egyptians began mummifying their dead around 2800 BC, and believed that by mummifying the dead, they were best preserving and preparing the decedents for prosperous living in the afterlife. Egyptian mummification was a sophisticated and time consuming process which involved the removal of the internal organs, the cleansing of the bodies with spices and palm wine, and then the drying and sealing of the bodies with plant based embalming oils, perfumes, and linen wrapping bandages. The organs, except for generally the heart, were removed by hook or hand, dried, and placed in separate sarcophaguses.
Egyptians also took great care in the building of tombs for these mummies, making sure they were elaborate and lavish enough to send their dead off in style and with enough supplies to set them up for their afterlife. The extent of the mummification practice also divided social classes in Ancient Egypt, with the upper classes having access to better embalming methods than poorer people.
Mummies in Africa are not unique to Egyptians, however. While there have been a range of mummies discovered, two of the most important examples were discovered in Libya and South Africa. One mummy discovered in Libya dates back an estimated 5,000 to 8,000 years old, and was well dressed for its burial, though scientists and anthropologists have yet to link it to any one cultural group. A mummy discovered in South Africa was also discovered in 1999, and was estimated to be around 2,000 years old. This mummy was an important discovery as it was determined by anthropologists to be an early member of the Khoi tribe of South Africa, which is an indigenous ethnic group.
Mummies have also been discovered all across Asia. Some of the most important examples of Asiatic mummies have been discovered in the harsh Russian tundra of Siberia. In 1993, Russian archaeologists discovered the tomb of a female mummy in the steppe region of Siberia in the Altai Mountains. This mummy has become more popularly known as Princess Ukok, or the Siberian Ice Maiden. This mummy, though not mummified in the same way as Egyptian mummies, was also discovered in a way that indicated her burial was to establish a good path to the afterlife. Her tomb also contained food and horses, as well as fine clothing, jewelry, and a headdress.
A male mummy was found in close proximity some years earlier. The Siberian Ice Maiden and the male mummy are thought to have been part of the Pazyryk culture, which was an Iron Age Scythian ethnic group that spanned Russia, China, Kazakhstan, and Mongolia in the fifth century, BCE. These mummies are currently undergoing archaeogenetic testing to find out more about them.
Perhaps the most modern example of mummification practices can be seen in the Toraja culture on the island of Sulawesi in Indonesia. Toraja people believe that it is their duty to take care of the bodies of their loved ones long after they are gone, and that the spirits of the decedents live on with them. When Toraja people pass away, their families refer to them as sick people, and take great lengths to prepare their bodies for their resting places. While the bodies used to be prepared for mummification with herbs, now they are prepared with chemicals like formaldehyde. The bodies are “buried” in cool, dry caves near their villages. These caves provide the ideal conditions for the bodies to become mummified. Every year (or every few years depending on the family) the mummies are brought out of the caves and back to their homes, where they are lovingly cleaned and cared for by their surviving family members. Sulawesi has become an increasingly popular tourist destination for travelers from all lands who want to see the mummification rituals for themselves.
Another important form of mummification in Asia is the historical practice of Sokushinbutsu. Sokushinbutsu is the practice of ascetic Buddhist monks entering mummification while they are still alive. Only 24 such cases are known to have been successful, but this practice has captured the interests of scholars and others nonetheless. In order to become mummies while still alive, monks would eat only pine needles and resins, getting rid of all fat in their bodies. Then, they would gradually reduce fluid intake while maintaining a meditative state. Because the monks’ bodies were already on the verge of being devoid of fat and fluid, their bodies would naturally mummify after death without any artificial intervention. Though these mummies are revered by Buddhists across Asia, Sokushinbutsu has been banned as a practice in Japan as an act of religious suicide, though the practitioners viewed it as a form of religious enlightenment.
Many of the mummies discovered in Europe have been naturally formed, such as the famous “bog bodies”, but here we are going to focus solely on intentionally made mummies. One such example of intentional mummies in Europe are the mummies of the indigenous Guanche group of the Canary Islands. The Guanche mummified all of their dead before being colonized by the Spanish in the fourteenth century. Their mummification process was incredibly similar to that of the Ancient Egyptians, however, few of these mummies remain due to more modern-day desecration.
In Hungary in 1994, 265 mummies were discovered in the crypt of a church in Vác, and were determined to have been buried between 1729 and 1838. These mummies were elaborately decorated and no two crypts were exactly alike. This discovery was deemed scientifically important to the archaeological community.
Finally, in Italy, sixty intentionally mummified sets of remains were discovered in the Capuchin Catacombs in Palermo. The catacombs were originally built in the sixteenth century, but mummies were continuously buried there until the 1920s. The mummies in these catacombs were those of dead friars at the adjacent Capuchin monastery, and were seen as a status symbol for the church. The Capuchins in Palermo mummified an estimated 8000 men and women, and it may be one of the largest groups of intentionally mummified remains in the world.
The Americas are perhaps only second to Egypt in the fame of their mummies. Most mummies that have been discovered in North and South America are from indigenous cultures. One such example of North American mummification are those of the Aztec people in Mexico. The Aztecs were a Pre-Colombian indigenous group in Central America, especially Mexico. Aztec people mummified the dead for rituals and funeral rites. Aztec mummies were wrapped in woven bandages and were adorned with masks. Many of these mummies have been lost to centuries of colonialism, and the ones often marketed or displayed as being genuine are simply reproductions or fakes.
South America has many examples of “mummy cultures”. For example, Chinchorro mummies in Chile and Peru are the oldest intentional mummies ever found. The earliest Chinchorro mummies are from the fifth millennium BC. All Chinchorro people were mummified by first having their skin and organs removed, and then being desiccated in the Aticama desert.
The most famous mummies of the Americas, however, are probably those of the Inca. The Incans were a people indigenous to Argentina, Chile, and Peru, and lived from about 1438-1532 AD. The Incan mummies are also known as ice mummies because of the cold climate they were found in. Incans made mummies of their wealthiest citizens, but also from human sacrifices left to die in the harsh environment. These human sacrifices were usually young people (and also generally young women) who were selected by priests or priestesses. They were given mixtures of alcohol and coca leaves to take before being sacrificed to die in the oudoors. While the sacrifices were mummified by the elements, generally freezing temperatures and dry, cold air, the wealthy Incans were mummified through a process of removing their organs, embalming, and subsequent freeze drying. Some famous examples of these mummies include Mama Juanita, an adult female mummy, the mummy of El Plomo, a male child, and the Llullaillaco salt mummies, two young girls and a boy. While many of these mummies have been located through archaeological exploration, it is thought that most of them were lost after the Spanish conquistadores ravished the region and effectively ended the Incan empire.
Significance in Anthropology
Because the vast majority of the mummies in this world come from ancient civilizations, just how, exactly, do they fit into our modern world? While mummies have taken on a more macabre connotation over the past century or so due to the constant inundation of them in films and books of the horror and action genres, they have not yet lost their anthropological or archaeological significance. Each mummy is a (nearly) perfectly preserved snapshot into the past; by examining them, we are better able to understand cultures that may have been lost to time, and in doing so, are better able to understand who we are and where we come from.
Some comparatively modern people have even elected to have been mummified themselves: philosopher Jeremy Bentham, Russian leader Vladimir Lenin, and Dr. Gottfried Knoche are all counted among multiple cases of modern mummification. Mummies are not just the works of horror fiction or the subjects of History Channel documentaries you put on for background noise. Rather, mummies are tools from the past that enable us in the present to examine the path of humanity through the lens of the one thing that unites all men: death.