Science Gazette

Europe’s mummification may be older than originally thought

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Mummification of the deceased was probably more prevalent than previously thought in prehistory. This finding was uncovered at hunter-gatherer burial sites in Portugal’s Sado Valley, which date back 8,000 years. A new research led by archaeologists from Uppsala University and Linnaeus University in Sweden, as well as the University of Lisbon in Portugal, reveals fresh evidence for pre-burial treatments including desiccation by mummification, which has never been proposed previously for the European Mesolithic. The findings have just been published in the European Journal of Archaeology.

Until date, the earliest documented evidence of purposeful mummification were from the Chinchorro hunter-gatherers of northern Chile’s Atacama Desert, with samples of mummified remains buried in shell middens approximately 7,000 years ago still maintaining soft tissue. Most surviving mummies, on the other hand, are more recent, ranging in age from a few hundred years to 4,000 years.

Mummification in prehistory is a tough subject for scholars to investigate since it’s impossible to tell whether a person was mummified when soft tissue is no longer evident. The dearth of documented documentation during these early eras adds to the challenge. Soft tissue, unlike bone, is uncommon in archaeological sites because to preservation concerns, and without it, it’s impossible to tell whether the remains were curated shortly after death. This is especially difficult in temperate and wetter regions, such as the majority of Europe, where soft tissues and textiles are less likely to survive at archaeological sites.

The researchers were able to reconstruct the positions in which the bodies were buried using recently discovered photographs of the skeletal remains of thirteen individuals excavated in the 1960s in the Sado Valley Mesolithic shell middens in Portugal, providing a unique opportunity to learn more about mortuary rituals that took place 8,000 years ago.

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Archaeothanatology and human decomposition tests were merged in this investigation. Archaeothanatology combines observations of the geographical distribution of the bones in the grave with knowledge of how the human body decomposes after death to help archaeologists record and analyze human remains at archaeological sites. Even if millennia have gone, archaeologists can recreate how the deceased corpse was treated after death and buried. The findings of human decomposition studies on mummification and burial at Texas State University’s Forensic Anthropology Research Facility influenced the archaeothanatology in this work.

Based on the findings, a mummy signature might be established that includes hyperflexion of the limbs, the lack of disarticulation in substantial portions of the skeleton, and fast sediment infilling around the bones. At least one of the tombs in our research included all of these elements. Some individuals were found buried in very flexible postures, with the legs flexed at the knees and put in front of the torso, according to the research.

The bones generally disarticulate at weak joints, such as the foot, during decomposition, but in these instances, the articulations were preserved. This pattern of hyperflexion and absence of disarticulation, according to the researchers, may be explained if the body was not deposited in the grave as a fresh cadaver, but rather as a mummied corpse in a dehydrated condition. Desiccation not only preserves some of these otherwise weak articulations, but it also allows for a strong flexion of the body since range of motion improves as soft tissue volume decreases. Because the corpses were dried before burial, there is little or no silt between the bones, and the articulations are preserved by continual infilling of the surrounding soil, which supports the bones and prevents articulation collapse.

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The patterns discovered might be the result of a directed natural mummification process, according to the researchers. The corpse’s manipulation during mummification would have taken place over a long period of time, with the body gradually being desiccated to retain its physical integrity while also being compressed into a desirable posture by trussing with rope or bandages. The corpse would have been simpler to carry after the procedure was completed (it would have been more contracted and lighter than a fresh cadaver), and it would have been buried with its appearance and anatomical integrity preserved.

If mummification in Europe was older than previously thought, a number of new insights into Mesolithic cultures’ funerary practices emerge, including a key concern for the body’s integrity and physical metamorphosis from cadaver to curated mummy. These behaviors would also emphasize the need of conveying the deceased to these areas in a way that contained and protected the corpse, while according to culturally controlled standards, stressing the value of both the body and the burial place in Mesolithic Portugal 8,000 years ago.

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