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Oldest Mummies in the World Disappearing Into Black Goo!

Mummified human remains are turning into ‘jelly’ in Chile, says a team of researchers. Recognition as world heritage site by UNESCO might be one of the answers to stop the degradation.

Saving 7,000-year-old mummies from dying of 'black goo'. Photo credits: Vivien Standen.

7,000-year-old mummies from dying of ‘black goo’. Photo credits: Vivien Standen.

Mummies can last forever, right? Well, forever might be drawing to its end. A series of mummies from Chile are transforming into black slime, and nothing can be done to stop this process, explains a team of Chilean researchers. The culprit: increased humidity.

The mummies are those of human remains, and are around 7,000 years of age. Some of them might even date back to 5050 BC, making of them the oldest mummies ever documented. Experts describe them as being older (by around 2 millennia) than Egyptian mummified pharaohs. Now, over 100 of them are becoming gelatinous. Local authorities are taking the matter seriously, and wish to rally international groups to come up with possible solutions. With this in mind, they made an official request to UNESCO to make the location a world heritage site.

“The application is not a goal in itself, but the start of a process of improved conservation tools, with the Chilean state and the international community,” says an anthropologist from the University of Tarapaca in Chile, Sergio Medina Parra.

The mummies are said to have been made by hunter-gatherers comprising the Chinchorro people. Unlike the Egyptians, they would mummify not only the elites of their societies but also any layman. A great part of the mummies include bodies of foetuses and infants as well as adults.

“Chinchorro mummies were not restricted to the dead of the top classes. This community was very democratic,” says one of the researchers investigating the mummies, Bernardo Arriaza from University of Tarapaca.

Arriaza also has a theory as to why the Chinchorros would take to mummifying their dead. He suggests that many of these people died from drinking arsenic-contaminated water from volcanoes (given that arsenic was found in the remains), leading to high miscarriage and infant mortality rates. The sorrow over losing their loved ones might have initiated them to preserve the dead bodies of the babies.

“Mummification could have started with the foetuses and grown to include adults. The oldest mummies we have found are of children,” says Arriaza.

The Chilean mummies have been buried underneath Atacama Desert for thousands of years, protected from rainwater for centuries— this is why they have been preserved to such a great extent. No more, though. The degradation of the mummies left Chilean preservationists perplexed. They turned to researchers from Harvard for answers.

“We knew the mummies were degrading but nobody understood why,” said Harvard biologist Ralph Mitchell back when they discovered the phenomenon. “This kind of degradation has never been studied before.”

New scientific work conducted on tissue samples from the mummies suggests that the black goo forming on them comes from bacterial colonies present in the skin of the human remains. These bacteria are the ones normally found on our skin, and thrive under humid conditions.

“[A]s soon as the right temperature and right moisture appeared, they started to use the skin as nutrients,” says Mitchell.

Meanwhile, the application to UNESCO remains without confirmed answer.


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