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5 Fascinating Ways Ancient Cultures Mummified Their Dead

Mummies have long captured the imagination of people all over the world. These preserved remains offer a fascinating glimpse into the lives, beliefs, and traditions of ancient cultures. From the elaborate mummification practices of the ancient Egyptians to the natural mummies of the Aleutian islanders, each culture had its unique way of preserving its dead. The mummies of the Chinchorro people and the Guanche people, for example, were among the oldest ever discovered, while the mummies of the Aztecs were highly ceremonial and were believed to possess spiritual power. Even the ancient Chinese and Tibetans had their own mummification methods. The mystery surrounding these preserved bodies continues to fascinate us, and as we uncover more about their stories, we gain a deeper understanding of the cultures that created them.

1.    Egyptian- The Most Famous
When people think about mummies and mummification methods, the first thing to come to mind is, of course, ancient Egypt. In Egypt, mummification was a complex process used to preserve people’s bodies for their journey to the afterlife.

The process was also quite grizzly. It began with the removal of organs, except for the heart (which was believed to be where the soul resided). The rest of the major organs were placed in canopic jars which were buried with the mummy. Not all the organs were saved, however. The brain was somehow removed via the nostrils using a hook. Deemed unimportant, it was then thrown away.

The body was then washed with water from the Nile before being dried with natron, a special, naturally occurring salt. The drying process usually took about 40 days, with the body being buried in, and packed with natron. Once dry, the body was wrapped in linen bandages and decorated with amulets and spells meant to protect the deceased on their upcoming journey.

The head was then adorned with a mask or headdress, often depicting the deceased as a god. This “finished” mummy was then placed in a series of Russian doll-like coffins, with the outermost coffin being heavily decorated with more designs, spells, and inscriptions.

2.    Inca- A Natural Approach
The Inca process of mummification wasn’t quite as “hands-on” as the Egyptian method. The Inca preferred a more natural mummification method, using natural preservation rather than artificial methods. The results were similar.

The Inca believed that mummification allowed the dead to travel to the afterlife and still maintain a connection to their community. The deceased would be carried up into the mountains and then placed in a seated position where the body would be exposed to the cold, dry mountain air and then the sun, which dried it out.

3.    Chinchorro Mummies- Predated Egyptian Mummies
Egyptian mummies might be the most famous, but they weren’t the first, nor were they the most impressive. The Chinchorro mummies are a collection of mummies found in the Atacama Desert of modern-day Chile and Peru. They are some of the oldest mummies in the world, with some dating back as far as 7000 BC.

What makes the Chinchorro mummies so fascinating is that the Chinchorro people appear to have used a range of different techniques to mummify their loved ones. These methods changed over time but are divided into roughly three groups.

Around 29% of found Chinchorro mummies underwent natural mummification. Chile’s naturally arid air and the high salt content of the soil meant that buried bodies simply dried out before they decayed.

4.    Guanche- Evolved Over Time
The Guanche mummies are a collection of mummies found in the Canary Islands, which were inhabited by the Guanche people before the arrival of Europeans in the 15th century. Guanche mummification has been divided by experts into three methods: evisceration, preservation, and stuffing. Different mummies show different combinations of these three methods.

Some mummies showed signs of evisceration. Incisions were made in the body so that the internal organs could be removed. Some bodies would be eviscerated and then their cavities filled with a mud-like substance. Another substance was also used as a filler beneath the skin, but its makeup is a mystery.

5.    Buddhist Mummies- Self Mummification
Who needs an embalmer when you can do it yourself? Found largely in Tibet and other parts of the Himalayas as well as Japan, Buddhist Mummies (also known as self-mummified monks) offer an astonishing look at one of the world’s rarest forms of mummification.

These monks believed self-mummification would allow them to achieve enlightenment and continue to guide their followers from beyond the grave. They began the process by following a strict diet and meditation regimen, which the monk would follow for several years prior to death. The diet consisted of a special tea made from the sap of a local tree, which had strong preservative properties. The monk would also engage in prolonged periods of meditation.

The prolonged periods of meditation and special diet were meant to reduce body fat and promote dehydration. This rather unpleasant process was also an act of self-punishment meant to aid the monks on the path to enlightenment.