Mummies of the World

I wouldn’t say that I’m obsessed with mummies, but I am fascinated by them. It’s amazing to see how the human body can be preserved over such a long length of time. And how, after centuries under wraps, they can still appear so life-like.

Here’re my memorable visits to mummies around the world:

Inca Child, National Geographic Photo

Inca Child, National Geographic Photo

Children of Llullaillaco – Salta, Argentina

I had seen a documentary about these mummies years ago, but I didn’t realize they were in the town of Salta, which I was to pass through on my way from San Pedro de Atacama in Chile to Igazu Falls in Argentina. After talking with a fellow traveler, I decided I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to stop by the museum and see them myself.

Frozen Solid: Unlike the mummies of Egypt, that were embalmed, the Children of Llullaillaco were actually frozen naturally in the extreme cold of the Andres Mountains. The child mummies were discovered in 1999 on Mount Llullaillaco, the world’s fifth highest volcano, standing at about 6,700 meters (22,000+ ft) above sea level.

Mount Llullaillaco is situated on the high plateau within in the Atacama Desert, one of the driest places in the world. The snow line of region of the Andes is around 6,500 meters (21,300 ft), which is about 1,000 meters higher than the snow line of the Himalayas. It’s this extreme aridity that has frozen the bodies, and as a result has maintained the fluids in their bodies.

Human Sacrifices: Dating from the height of the Inca period, between 1438 to 1532, the Children were sacrificed to the Inca gods and were thought to have been drugged with chica, a local maize beer, and coca leaves before they were buried alive on the mountain.

Inca Boy, National Geographic Photo

Inca Boy, National Geographic Photo

There are three Children of Llullaillaco:

• Female teenage mummy: Called ‘La Doncella,’ this young woman aged 15 was thought to have been a Sun Virgin and was sanctified when she was a child, and raised with other chosen girls. She was brought up to be a royal wife, a priestess or a sacrifice. She is buried in a ceremonial headdress and several statues, with her hair elaborately braided.

• Boy mummy: Unlike the female mummies, the little boy, thought to be about 8 years old, was found tied up. He also had vomit mixed with blood on this clothing, so researchers think he suffered a pulmonary edema.

• Young female mummy: Referred to as ‘Lightning Girl,’ this child was struck by lightening after being buried. The artifacts buried with her indicated that she had traveled from Cusco, Peru. She also had a cone-shaped head, the result of the Inca practice of binding children’s heads at birth to help turn them into the shape of a mountain.

The mummies are only displayed one at a time. During my visit, I viewed the boy mummy and it was uncanny how realistic he was. You could see not only the hair on his head, but also the hair on his arms. And his clothes were in amazing condition.

I’ll give the Incas this, it does seem like a monumental sacrifice to lead these small children to their deaths, buried alone on a desolate mountain top.

Lindow Man – London England

Lindow Man, British Museum

Lindow Man, British Museum

Bog mummies, most of whom are 2,000-2,500 year old, have been found in the cold, watery peat bogs throughout the UK and Northern Europe, including Germany, Denmark, and the Netherlands. The mummies are considered “accidental mummies,” in that the bog waters inadvertently preserved the victims.

A bog is 90% water and 10% decaying plant matter. The bodies didn’t rot because the bog-water doesn’t permit the growth of bacteria. The bog water also contains acids that act as a tanning agent, turning the human skin into leather. So a corpse found in a bog will have its hair and many of his internal organs well preserved, creating a mummy.

Murder Mystery: The most famous bog body is Lindow Man, a 25-year old male found in the vicinity of Manchester in 1984. Lindow Man is a particular mystery since he appears to have been murdered sometime between 2 BC and AD 119. First Lindow Man’s head and neck were struck with a blunt object. Then he was strangled by a rope at the neck. And after he was dead, he had his throat cut and was placed face-down in the bog.

Scientists think this elaborate death ritual points to a human sacrifice by Druids. There is also speculation that Lindow Man was a person of nobility, perhaps a Druid priest or king, since the body displayed smooth hands, manicured fingernails and a trimmed beard.

Lindow Man is displayed in a corner of the British Museum. He was recently moved from a more public landing out of deference to the human corpse. I visited Lindow Man when I was in London last summer. Before then, I hadn’t heard of the bog bodies or known that humans could be preserved in this way.

Interested in reading more about mummies from around the world? Be sure and check back next week for Mummies of the World: Part 2 – Pompeii & Egypt.

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This entry was posted on Sunday, February 24th, 2013 and is filed under Travel Favorites.

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