About 7,000 years ago, civilizations had to adapt to a changing climate that grew wetter and wetter. The earliest known examples of ritual mummification were from this wet period in the Atacama Desert, and scientists believe the climate led communities to adopt the ritual.

The Chinchorro people inhabited the desert from 11,000 BC to 500 BC, though they did not begin to mummify their dead until 5000 BC. Researchers have found plant evidence that suggests significantly greater rainfall across the Andes region between 5800 BC and 4700 BC, making life easier for the Chinchorro and allowing for a population hike. Following the theory that population increase leads to technological innovation, scientists believe the increased number of bodies caused ritual mummification.

Corpses do not decompose in the coastal desert the Chinchorro inhabited. The dry environment allows for natural mummification, and scientists posit that more people coming across naturally mummified corpses initiated artificial mummification. Though this cannot be proven, it makes sense that the Chinchorro would want to preserve loved ones’ bodies if they knew such a thing was possible.

The Chinchorro used very intricate mummification practices, which evolved as the cultural practice became more widespread. There are three distinct styles: black, red and mud-coated.

Black is the oldest style, and also the most complex, in which the body would be disassembled and then put together with clay and plants to replace everything other than skin and bones. The skin would be reformed around the body, and a clay mask would be placed over the face, with small slits for the eyes and mouth to represent slumber.

The red style came next, in which the corpse was left mostly intact and incisions were made to remove muscles and organs — the head would be removed, however, to best access the brain. The body was then stuffed with clay, plant material and llama fur, and stitched together with human hair and a cactus needle. Clay masks in the red style featured more awake-appearances with open mouths and eyes.

The last style, mud-covered, simply consisted of drying corpses and covering them with mud. This was near the decline of the Chinchorro people, and it is thought mummification skills were lost with the lessening population.

Main photo credit: Pablo Trincado