Human remains uncovered in Portugal date back 8,000 years, and could provide the earliest evidence of mummification, a new study says.
Researchers have studied photographs of skeletal remains of 13 human individuals excavated in the early 1960s in the Sado Valley, Portugal.
They were able to reconstruct the positions in which the bodies were buried, providing ‘a unique opportunity’ to learn more about 8,000-year-old mortuary rituals.
The analysis showed that some bodies were buried in bent, compact positions, with the legs flexed at the knees and placed in front of the chest.
Some bodies may have been mummified prior to burial, possibly for reasons ‘linked to their curation and transport’, the experts reveal.
Until now, the Chinchorro mummies of northern Chile, dating back 7,000 years, are the oldest in the world to have been purposefully preserved by humans.
Meanwhile, the ancient Egyptians were embalming mummies up to 5,700 years ago, according to a previous study.
Further analysis of the Sado Valley bodies could officially make them the oldest mummies in the world.
Two skeletons recovered from the Sado Valley in Portugal. These burials illustrate several traits common to the Sado Valley burials during the Mesolithic period, experts say
Researchers have studied photographs of skeletal remains of 13 human individuals excavated in the early 1960s in the Sado Valley Mesolithic, Portugal
Pictured, a modern-day view from the archaeological site Arapouco towards the Sado Valley, Portugal
THE SADO VALLEY MUMMIES
Human remains discovered 8,000 years ago in Portugal’s Sado Valley appear to have been mummified before being buried.
Excavated in 1960 and 1962, the remains show evidence for pre-burial treatments such as desiccation through mummification.
That some bodies may have been mummified prior to burial is ‘a phenomenon possibly linked to their curation and transport’.
Most surviving mummies worldwide are more recent, dating between a few hundred years and 4,000 years old.
The new study has been conducted by archaeologists at Uppsala University and Linnaeus University in Sweden and University of Lisbon in Portugal.
Researchers based their findings on photos recovered from the personnel effects of Portuguese archaeologist Manuel Farinha dos Santos (1923–2001).
‘A few years ago, three rolls of film from the excavation of two Mesolithic burial sites in the Sado Valley in south-western Portugal resurfaced,’ they say.
‘Both sites, Arapouco and Poças de S. Bento, were excavated in the 1960s and more recently in the 1980s and 2010s, and most of their human burials have been studied and published.
‘The photographs of burials excavated in 1960 and 1962 were, however, missing, and the documentation was incomplete.
‘The rediscovery of these photographs thus provided a unique opportunity to add to our knowledge of Mesolithic mortuary practices.’
Detecting if a body was preserved through mummification when soft tissue is no longer visible is ‘challenging’, the team say.
Unlike bone, finding soft tissue in archaeological sites is rare due to issues of preservation – especially in temperate and wetter climates, such as in Europe.
These photos depict the reduction of the soft tissue during ‘natural mummification’. Left: fully fleshed body placed as tightly flexed as possible using bandages. Centre: reduced body volume and increased flexion of the body after three weeks, due to desiccation of the soft tissues and repeated tightening of the bandages. Right: further reduced body volume after seven months, due to continued desiccation of the soft tissues. Bandages were not further tightened after three weeks
Top row: experimental burial of a fresh body in flexed supine position, unclothed, directly in the soil. Bottom row: experimental burial of a desiccated body after seven months of guided natural mummification and trussing during the first three weeks
The Iberian Peninsula and location of the shell middens of the Sado Valley, Portugal. b) Arapouco and Poças de S. Bento, with minimum number of individuals excavated in each site
ASTONISHING PHOTOS SHOW THE ‘NATURAL MUMMIES’ OF SAN BERNARDO
Astonishing new photos show the extremely well-preserved ‘natural mummies’ housed in a Colombian mausoleum that are thought to date back only around 100 years.
More than a dozen of the bodies are on display in glass cases at a mausoleum in San Bernardo, Colombia, high within the Andes and 40 miles southwest of the country’s capital Bogota.
Why they’re so well-preserved is a mystery, although some experts think it’s because of the local climate and altitude, which could affect the chemical composition of the earth and act like a natural embalmer.
Read more: New photos show the ‘natural mummies’ of San Bernardo
The skeletal remains of 13 individuals were excavated in the 1960s from Mesolithic shell middens – remnants of ‘meals eaten long ago’.
Shell middens consist primarily of concentrations of discarded shell and bone, botanical remains, ash and charcoal. They also contain evidence of past hunting, gathering and food processing activities.
The study involved ‘archaeothanatology’ – an approach that combines observations of the spatial distribution of the bones in the grave with knowledge about how the human body decomposes after death.
This lets archaeologists then reconstruct how the dead body was handled after death and buried, even if several thousands of years have passed.
In this study, archaeothanatology was also informed by results from human decomposition experiments on mummification and burial at the Forensic Anthropology Research Facility at Texas State University.
Based on the results, researchers observed hyperflexion of the limbs, where a joint is flexed beyond its normal range of motion.
‘For hyperflexed positions to be present in a burial with preserved labile joint connections in unstable positions, the body must have been initially buried in this hyperflexed position,’ the researchers say.
‘The combination of hyperflexion throughout the body with a lack of disarticulation or evidence of in situ bone movement… is therefore a strong taphonomic indicator of burial in a mummified condition.’
There was also an absence of ‘disarticulation’ – amputation of a limb through a joint, without the cutting of bone – in significant parts of the skeleton, and a rapid infilling of sediment around the bones.
The extreme ‘clumping’ of the lower limbs may suggest the body was prepared and desiccated prior to burial
Reconstruction of the spatial distribution of the burials based on the new photographic documentation showing graves placed in close proximity
During decomposition, the bones usually become disarticulated at weak joints, such as at the feet, but in these cases, the articulations were maintained.
The researchers propose that this pattern of hyperflexion and lack of disarticulation could be explained if the body was not placed in the grave as a fresh corpse, but in a desiccated state as a mummied corpse.
The manipulation of the body during mummification would have taken place over an extended period of time, during which the body gradually would become desiccated to maintain its ‘bodily integrity’.
It would also have simultaneously been contracted by trussing with rope or bandages to compress it into a desired position.
Some bodies were buried in extremely flexed positions with the legs flexed at the knees and placed in front of the chest
When the process was finished, the body would have been easier to transport (being more contracted and significantly lighter) while ensuring that it was buried while retaining its appearance and anatomical integrity.
Mummification of the dead probably was more common in prehistory than previously known, the researchers conclude.
The results are now published in European Journal of Archaeology.
UNESCO ADDS 7,000-YEAR-OLD CHILEAN MUMMIES TO ITS WORLD HERITAGE LIST
The Chinchorro mummies of northern Chile, the oldest in the world purposefully preserved by humans, were added to UNESCO’s World Heritage List in 2021.
The mummies, found at the start of the 20th century, are more than 7,000 years old—pre-dating the more famous Egyptian mummies by some 2,000 years.
During the 44th session of the World Heritage Committee, held online from Fuzhou, China, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization announced Tuesday it had added the ‘settlement and artificial mummification of the Chinchorro culture’ to the prestigious list.
‘UNESCO is validating on an international level, through different experts, that the settlements and artificial mummification of the Chinchorro culture has exceptional value, that it has a global importance,’ Chilean anthropologist Bernardo Arriaza told AFP.