The world famous mummies of Chile, belonging to the Chinchorro tribe, which had braved all elements of weather since the last 7,000 years have been seen to melt into a thick black ooze due to recent climatic changes. Known to be the world’s oldest man made mummies, they have come under huge threat due to an increase in the level of moisture.
A coastal tribe, the Chinchorros lived along the coasts of Southern Peru and Western Chile and relied heavily on fishing for their livelihood, though most of the inland region inhabited by them was a desert. They were one of the very few tribes of South America to have practiced mummification rituals.
The University of Tarapaca’s archeological museum in Arica, chile, houses nearly 120 such mummies. But the scientists on the campus have been befuddled at seeing these mummies degrading rapidly and turning into thick black ooze.
“Whereas the Egyptians considered only kings and other exalted citizens worthy of mummification, the Chinchorro accorded everyone in the community, regardless of age or status, this sacred rite,” wrote Bernardo Arriaza, an expert on the mummies, which were first discovered in the Atacama desert in 1917.
Samples taken from these bodies dating back several millennia revealed that the degradation of the mummies was microbial. But what is noteworthy is that the process of degradation has increased rapidly over the last decade.
The microbe causing the deterioration is an ‘opportunist’, as observed by Ralph Mitchell, a Gordon McKay Professor of Applied Biology Emeritus with Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) who was called in specifically to help pinpoint the exact culprit for the irreparable damage.
“With many diseases we encounter, the microbe is in our body to begin with, but when the environment changes it becomes an opportunist,” he explains.
In addition to the globally rising temperature, the increase in humidity level seems to have played a major role in accelerating the rate at which this bacteria acts on the mummified bodies. Researchers have now suggested keeping these bodies in a room where humidity levels are maintained between 40 and 60 percent to prevent any further damage to the skin of these mummies.