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Arsenic poisoning likely led Chinchorro to mummify their dead

By Ruben Figueroa

Santiago, Aug 10 (EFE)- Over 7,000 years ago, the Chinchorro began settling the northern coast of the Atacama Desert in modern-day Chile and developed the technique of mummifying their dead.

A joint study by the University of Chile and the University of Tarapaca suggests that such practice was spawned by the high death rates due to exposure to arsenic-contaminated water and their desire to preserve the bodies of their loved ones.

The mummification technique later disappeared due to the rise in the genetic tolerance for arsenic that is seen among local inhabitants today, according to the study.

The Chinchorro culture was a pioneer in mummification as it predated Egypt by roughly 3,000 years. Its mummies are currently preserved in the Arica and Parinacota Region, recently listed on Unesco’s World Heritage Site list.

The Chinchorro, who were fishers and hunter gatherers, used to live near the Camarones River that naturally contains high levels of arsenic, which caused massive poisonings when they came to the area.

“The first populations that arrived there to settle were chronically poisoned by arsenic, which leads to high perinatal mortality rates,” Bernardo Arriaza, an anthropologist at the University of Tarapaca, told EFE.

Left with pain and anguish, parents began to adorn and decorate their babies before mummifying them, according to Arriaza.

So far, it is known that the first mummies date back to about 5,000 to 3,000 BC and they belong to children, fetuses and newborns, whose organs were removed and stuffed with clay and other materials.

The practice evolved and extended until 890 BC, encompassing individuals of all ages and transforming mummification into something “extremely complex” and into “true pre-Hispanic works of art,” Arriaza said.

Unlike the Egyptian culture, where mummification is associated with the idea of ??transcending to another world, the Chinchorro preserved the bodies of their loved ones as a way of giving them eternal life, according to Mauricio Uribe, an archaeologist at the University of Chile.

“Mummification is a reflection of an ideological construction developed from the concept of loss. Most likely they were in sight because the idea is to stay in the world here, to continue in the present,” he explained.

This thought is shared by Rodrigo Retamal, an anthropologist at the same university, saying that “there were processions, exercises and social activities where the bodies came out and showed themselves.”

A 2017 study by the University of Chile analyzed the genetic adaptation the Chichorro people developed over time to areas with high levels of arsenic.

The result showed that 68% of the current population in Camarones have a variant of the AS3MT enzyme in their genome, which allows them to easily get rid of arsenic through urine.

In this regard, Arriaza pointed out that this could explain why artificial mummification disappeared towards the 1st millennium BC. EFE


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