No country is more associated with mummies and mummification that Egypt, with Peru or Chile coming in a distant second. Because of that, it has been assumed that Egyptians practiced this preservation of the dead before any other culture. The evidence supported this … until now. Archaeologists have found what appear to be mummified human remains interred 8,000 years ago – not in Egypt or in South America but in Portugal. Portugal?
“Mummification in the Mesolithic: New Approaches to Old Photo Documentation Reveal Previously Unknown Mortuary Practices in the Sado Valley, Portugal”
The title of a new study in the European Journal of Archeology shows why archeologists never stop looking at the things they find – even if it’s just photographs. A team of researchers led by archaeologist Rita Peyroteo-Stjerna of Uppsala University in Sweden acquired three rolls of undeveloped film from the estate of the late archaeologist Manuel Farinha dos Santos. Santo took the photos of human remains found during excavations carried out in Poças de S. Bento in 1960 and Arapouco in 1962 – both sites in Portugal. The remains were from 8,000 years ago but the photographs were of such high quality that the team was able to discern something the archeologists who found them could not – they appear to have been deliberately treated for mummification prior to burial. If so, this would be the first evidence of mummification in Europe.
"For hyperflexed positions to be present in a burial with preserved labile joint connections in unstable positions, the body must have been initially buried in this hyperflexed position."
As reported in Science Alert, the remains were skeletal – no soft tissue survived – but the remains were in such odd positions that the researchers suspected something had been done to the bodies before burial to end up like this. To determine what was done, the enlisted the services of forensic anthropologist Hayley Mickleburgh of the Forensic Anthropology Research Facility at Texas State University. Mickleburgh does experiments in human decomposition and found it unusual that one set of remains had hyperflexed limbs, an absence of disarticulation (displacement of the bones), and rapid sediment infill around the bones. To Mickleburgh, those are clear signs of mummification. (Photos here.)
“Whether these sites were permanently settled is still debated, but we suggest that at least some individuals could have been transported to the burial ground from another location after death. Moving the dead would have been a costly endeavour; mummification before transport would have made the journey easier.”
One theory given for the mummification is that these nomadic people developed a tradition of burying their dead in one location, which required the cadaver to be put in a condition suitable for carrying. This also indicated that this culture had developed beliefs about the handling of death.
Again, these photographs show mummification was practiced on the Iberian Peninsula 8000 year ago – thousands of years before the first evidence of the practice in Egypt and a thousand years before the Chinchorro mummies in Chile. While not as elaborate as either of these, the Portuguese mummies are still the first … for now.