Burial Rituals Across Time and Space: Chinchorro vs. Egyptians

The corpse and its preservation, widely varies across many cultures according to their methods and throughout the progression of time. Mummification is historically a process people strictly associate with the ancient Egyptian societies, depicted in television shows, movies, and other entertainment outlets. However, a group called the Chinchorro mummies in Chile, who used mummification processes as early as 5000 B.C.[1], and these processes vary quite drastically from those of the ancient Egyptians. The Chinchorro civilization’s mummification process was very revolutionary for the time and was also very detailed. First, the deceased would be stripped of all their skin, organs, and brain and these cavities would be cleaned and the bones would be burned to remove all the liquid to prevent decay. Following the burning of the bones, the Chinchorro people would resemble the bones in a skeletal structure as well as using twigs to supplement the bulk of the body. Then, they would reapply the skin and apply an ash paste to the body and a clay mask to the face followed by a black paint, creating a seal so the skin would preserve during the mummification process.[2]

7,000 year old Chinchorro mummy found in Chile’s Andes Mountains


Scientist tested hair samples of the first Chinchorro mummies and found high levels of arsenic, presumably from their drinking water, which is thought to be the cause of death for many of them.[3] Scientists have also discovered that in the past decade Chinchorro mummies have been withering away and decomposing after thousands of years. Scientists think the recent climate change and increase of humidity in the air in Chile allows for bacteria and microorganisms to thrive in the mummies, causing the degrading and discoloration of these ancient mummies.[4] It is crucial that these bodies be exhumed and maintained in a controlled environment to ensure the preservation of these first known mummies.

When people think of mummies their first thought is the Ancient Egyptian mummies, however their mummification process differs quite drastically of the processes of the Chinchorro mummies. The Ancient Egyptians discovered early in their mummification process how bacteria manifests in the deceased and to counteract this decomposition they needed to remove the organs from the body. They removed the brain by placing hooks in the nostrils and pounding the bones and brain tissue allowing for a passageway for the loose brain fragments and liquid ooze out. To ensure the liquid from the body was dried up to prevent decomposition, they used a salt mixture called natron which produced a very dried out, yet recognizable body.[5] The use of natron is extremely revolutionary to the mummification process and shines light on how innovative and ingenious the Ancient Egyptians were. The next step in the Egyptian mummification process is the wrapping of the body, using hundreds of yards of linen material to ensure the mummy was fully cloaked, even wrapping fingers and toes separately in many cases.[6]


Many of the Ancient Egyptian mummies have been exhumed by scientists and anthropologists to study more about their way of life and the processes of which have preserved these historic bodies. Scientists discovered that DNA from Egyptian mummies has been nearly impossible to extract, though to be because of the desert climate at the chemicals used in the mummification process. However, they successfully recovered DNA sequences and genomes from 90 Ancient Egyptian mummies, giving scientists insight onto the hierarchical lines of the mummies and how they relate to the mummification process.[7] Scientists also made another revolutionary discovery by using CT scans to find that Ancient Egyptian mummies had a predisposition for and presence of atherosclerosis, which caused calcification of their bones thought to be due to their environment and their genetics.[8] Scientific and Anthropological research of these Ancient Chinchorro and Egyptian mummies continue to reveal the way of life and contributing environments of these primitive societies, also how these differing techniques and climates affect the preservation of these historic mummies. There are many ethical issues, ancient and modern, that arise when discussing these mummies, such as the aforementioned exhuming of ancient Egyptian mummies. For ancient Egyptian burials, the issue of class privilege is often discussed.

Egyptian mummification was directly influenced by the culture’s social construct. Although many people of different social classes participated in the mummification processes, the elaborate procedures and burial rituals were an expensive undertaking. Many members of the lower social class were financially unable to participate in the elaborate rituals, and bodies of these individuals have been found in massive communal grave sites.[9] The contrast in treatment of the dead from different social classes is ethically controversial. It was of no importance to elite Egyptian society to encourage the afterlife preservation of their poorer counterparts. The ethical principle of beneficence is not represented in the elaborate rituals needed to properly transition into the afterlife. The exclusivity of the mummification procedures prevents certain members of society from having a proper burial, by definition of cultural constructs.

The elaborate mummification process of Egyptian culture reflected the importance of afterlife in society. The careful preservation of each individual organ, and the re-stuffing of organs back into the deceased body was essential to the preservation. The care in which the priests embalmed the body indicated that Egyptians believed that the soul and body were tied together even after the person had passed. A body that had not been preserved at all, such as those found in the communal grave sites, would be no home for a soul in the afterlife.

Communal grave sites in Chinchorro burial grounds

In contrast, Chinchorro mummification appeared to have been a more inclusive societal practice. A unique aspect of Chinchorro mummification is the various typologies of mummification that have been discovered.[10] Naturally preserved bodies, artificially reconstructed mummies, and mud-covered bodies are all examples of methods of body preservation used by the Chinchorro people. The complexity of the majority of the mummification procedures shows extensive knowledge of anatomy. The reconstruction and conservation techniques show that the Chinchorro people prioritized external preservation rather than internal preservation.[11] This suggests that there were no ethical concerns in dismantling the internal structures of the bodies after they had passed on. The normalization of dissecting bodies as part of a culture’s mummification process suggests that a person’s body and soul were seen as separated once they were determined dead.

It is also important to address the ethical issues that anthropologists face when dissecting mummies from sites such as those in the Chinchorro culture. From an anthropologist perspective, collecting data about extinct cultures can be challenging. Sometimes important information contributing to our understanding of these societies can only be collected by dissection. The act of dismantling a body that has been intentionally preserved in an extinct society for the benefit of modern day is controversial. This could be represented as an action of disrespect to the bodies buried from past cultures. By applying the ethical term of utilitarianism, one could argue that dissection of the remains would yield the greatest amount of good to the most people in the form of present-day knowledge. Due to the anthropological duty to contribute to science, this method of investigation is often scientifically justified. Despite this understanding, it is essential to continue to utilize technology such as computer scanning in attempt to limit the destruction that anthropological exploration causes.

Egyptian Mummy being evaluated through a CT scan [12]

Non-invasive techniques such as MRI and X-ray have been studied as ways of conducting anthropological research on mummified bodies. The issue with these imaging techniques is the cost and time commitment required per body examination. In this regard, a physical autopsy of an uncovered body would prove to be a more efficient process. With increasing technology, devices such as the CAT scan have been able to collect information on the bony and soft tissue structures of a body, including degenerative disorders and dental diseases[13]. As technology continues to expand non-invasive research capabilities, physical dissection currently remains the “gold standard” of anthropological research.

Many anthropologists also believe that there should be a clear code of ethics to outline dissection principles. The implementation of an international mummy research protocol to address these ethical considerations would allow for uniformity among researchers. Specific dissection procedures, how much of a body can be dissected, and who has the authority to dissect bodies are all topics that those in favor of ethical conservation have expressed importance in outlining.[14] Body dissection has also previously been utilized for commercial purposes.

Although the process of Chinchorro mummification is understood, little is known about the background of the mummies. Studies of the climate during the time provided archaeologists with clues of what spurred the practice; the speculation churned out many theories. Prior to the start of the mummifying, the climate improved, leading to increased food and water supplies, which resulted in an increase in population growth of living and dead. The dry desert climate meant that the bodies did not decompose, and a need of corpse disposal arose.[15] [16]

The practice was not tied to class and Chinchorro mummies were not limited to the wealthy and privileged, but rather a practice that everyone was a part of. In contrast, mummification in ancient Egypt was connected to class as the process was very expensive so besides pharaohs, only nobility, officials and some commoners were mummified.[17] The elaborate process of ancient Egyptian mummification indicates that they were highly preoccupied with the afterlife.

The high costs are a result of the beliefs held by ancient Egyptians of the afterlife. The indicators of the Chinchorro burial rites and beliefs are nonexistent, while archaeologists have a relatively thorough understanding of the ancient Egyptian’s[18]. The burial rituals and symbols of the ancient Egyptians originated from the cult of Osiris, a popular god. The myth of Isis and Osiris influenced the practices and care taken to mummification. The care of a dead body was very elaborate and started even before the person had died. They believed that, with the proper rituals performed, the person would bring items to the Afterlife. This belief meant that prior to the death much had to be prepared. Many workers —craftsmen, artists, and others— are involved in tomb preparation to create the furniture, paintings, foods, and other essentials thought to be needed in the Afterlife.

Great care was taken of the corpse as well; maintaining the body was essential as it was one of the nine parts of the soul, the Khat, and linked to one’s identity and immortal soul. In comparison, the Chinchorro likely did not feel a similar connection between the corpse and the soul3, as the normalization of dissection and disregard for the corpses insides contrasts the care in preserving the organs and body present in ancient Egyptian rituals. In death, the Khat is essential in allowing two other parts, the Ka and Ba, to recognize each other post-release upon death. Such recognition was considered important since the Ka and Ba would be confused once released and need to find a familiar form to regroup by. Without this recognition, the spirits would be lost. [19]After this recollection of the spirits post-death, the body still remained an anchor as the Ka stayed in the tomb with the offerings, the Akh headed to the Afterlife after receiving the Final Judgement in the Underworld, and the Ba flew freely in and out of the tomb.

Due to the religious importance of some animals, humans were not the only mummies. Cats, baboons, bulls, crocodiles, and other animals were sometimes mummified, depending on the dynasty due to their association with certain ancient Egyptian gods. This contrasts Chinchorro mummies, which were all human. These animals were sometimes buried with people or given their own tombs.[20]

A fresco depicting a funeral procession [21]

Once the tomb and body were prepared, there still were rites to do to finalize the process. Egyptians of high status would have funeral processions to display their status. Among the participants were relatives (some of whom acted as Isis and Nephthys, the goddesses who were the chief mourners of Osiris’s death, while others preceded or followed the coffin), priests, hired mourners, dancers, and musicians. Some marchers carried the canopic jars containing preserved organs and other grave items. The procession would cross the Nile to the western bank, which was the favored burial location. At the opening of the tomb, special rites were performed by priests during the funeral ceremony to allow the dead enjoy the Afterlife. For example, the most important rite, the “Opening of the Mouth”, allowed the spirits to enjoy the senses had in life by ensuring the dead person could eat and speak in the Afterlife with a touch of a special instrument to the mouth. After these rites, the mummy was placed into the coffin(s) and the tomb was sealed.[22][23]

Comparing the ethical, scientific, and cultural aspects of Chinchorro and ancient Egyptian mummies allows us to understand the differences between the burial practices and beliefs between the civilizations that created the mummies discussed above. With two thousand years between the start of each of the practices, there are many similarities and differences between the two kinds of mummies. There is still much to learn about the Chinchorro and ancient Egyptian burial practices; as this comes to a close, the questions and wonders of the oldest and the most famous mummies are far from sealed.

Karahgan Munday

Heather Fowler

Michelle Zheng


[1]Bernardo T. Chungara Arriaza, “Arseniasis as an Environmental Hypothetical Explanation for the Origin of the Oldest Artificial Mummification Practice in the World,” ProQuest Central, vol.37(2005):255-260. http://libproxy.lib.unc.edu/login?url=https://search-proquest-com.libproxy.lib.unc.edu/docview/204202394?accountid=14244

[2] Kate Lohnes, “That’s a Wrap: Methods of Mummification,” Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/story/thats-a-wrap-methods-of-mummification

[3] DeAraujo, Vasanthakumar, Sepulveda, et al., “Investigation of the recent microbial degradation of the skin of the Chinchorro mummies of Ancient Chile,” Journal of Cultural Heritage, vol.22(2016):999-1005. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.culher.2015.11.004

[4] DeAraujo, Vasanthakumar, Sepulveda, et al., “Investigation of the recent microbial degradation of the skin of the Chinchorro mummies of Ancient Chile,” Journal of Cultural Heritage, vol.22(2016):999-1005. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.culher.2015.11.004

[5]Anthropology Outreach Office, “Egyptian Mummies,” Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. https://www.si.edu/spotlight/ancient-egypt/mummies

[6]Anthropology Outreach Office, “Egyptian Mummies,” Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. https://www.si.edu/spotlight/ancient-egypt/mummies

[7] Lizzie Wade, “Egyptian mummy DNA, at last,” Science, vol.356(2017):894. http://science.sciencemag.org.libproxy.lib.unc.edu/content/356/6341/894

[8] Allam, Thompson, Wann, et al., “Computed Tomographic Assessment of Atherosclerosis in Ancient Egyptian Mummies,” Jama, vol.302(2009):2091-2094. https://jamanetwork-com.libproxy.lib.unc.edu/journals/jama/fullarticle/184891

[9]  Jones, J., Higham, T., Chivall, D., et. al.. (2018). A prehistoric Egyptian mummy: Evidence for an ‘embalming recipe’ and the evolution of early formative funerary treatments. Journal of Archeological Science, 100, 191-200.


[10] Aufderheide, A., Muñoz, I., & Arriaza, B. T. ( 1993). Seven Chinchorro mummies and the Prehistory of the northern of Chile. American Journal of Physical Anthropology, 91, 189– 201.

[11] Guillen, S. E. (1992). The chinchorro culture: Mummies and crania in the reconstruction of preceramic coastal adaptation in the south central andes (Order No. 9308327). Available from ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global. (304017705).


[12]  Petrella E, Piciucchi S, Feletti F, Barone D, Piraccini A, Minghetti C, et al. (2016) CT Scan of Thirteen Natural Mummies Dating Back to the XVI-XVIII Centuries: An Emerging Tool to Investigate Living Conditions and Diseases in History. PLoS ONE 11(6): e0154349. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0154349

[13] Moissidou, D., Day, J., Shin, D. H., & Bianucci, R. (2015). Invasive versus non invasive methods applied to mummy research: Will this controversy ever be solved? BioMed Research International, 2015. doi:http://dx.doi.org.libproxy.lib.unc.edu/10.1155/2015/192829


[14]  Lacovara, P. & Baines, J. (2003). Mummification and mummies in ancient egypt. In C. D. Bryant & D. L. Peck Handbook of death & dying (pp. 819-828). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc. doi: 10.4135/9781412914291.n81

[15] “Beyond Death: The Chinchorro Mummies of Ancient Chile.” Choice Reviews Online33, no. 08 (1996). doi:10.5860/choice.33-4578.

[16] Arriaza, Bernardo T. “Chinchorro Bioarchaeology: Chronology and Mummy Seriation.” Latin American Antiquity6, no. 01 (1995): 35-55. doi:10.2307/971599.

[17] Agai, Jock M. “Resurrection Imageries: A Study of the Motives for Extravagant Burial Rituals in Ancient Egypt.” Verbum Et Ecclesia36, no. 1 (2015). doi:10.4102/ve.v36i1.1457.

[18] Lacovara, P. & Baines, J. (2003). Mummification and mummies in ancient egypt. In C. D. Bryant & D. L. Peck Handbook of death & dying (pp. 819-828). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc. doi: 10.4135/9781412914291.n81


[19] Mark, Joshua J. “Mummification in Ancient Egypt.” Ancient History Encyclopedia. Last modified February 14, 2017. https://www.ancient.eu/article/44/.

[20] Agai, Jock M. “Resurrection Imageries: A Study of the Motives for Extravagant Burial Rituals in Ancient Egypt.” Verbum Et Ecclesia36, no. 1 (2015). doi:10.4102/ve.v36i1.1457.

[21] “Egypt, Ancient Thebes, Luxor, Valley of Nobles, Tomb of Ramose, fresco depicting funeral procession.” In Bridgeman Images: DeAgostini Library, edited by Bridgeman Images. Bridgeman, 2014. http://libproxy.lib.unc.edu/login?url=https://search.credoreference.com/content/entry/bridgemandeag/egypt_ancient_thebes_luxor_valley_of_nobles_tomb_of_ramose_fresco_depicting_funeral_procession/0?institutionId=1724


[22] Agai, Jock M. “Resurrection Imageries: A Study of the Motives for Extravagant Burial Rituals in Ancient Egypt.” Verbum Et Ecclesia36, no. 1 (2015). doi:10.4102/ve.v36i1.1457.

[23] Dodson, Aidan, and AIDAN DODSON. “Egypt, Ancient: Funeral Practices and Mummification.” In Encyclopedia of African History, edited by Kevin Shillington. Routledge, 2004. http://libproxy.lib.unc.edu/login?url=https://search.credoreference.com/content/entry/routafricanhistory/egypt_ancient_funeral_practices_and_mummification/0?institutionId=1724




  1. This article is similar to “Mummies in Media” in that it relates Egyptian and Chinese mummification. While similar in theory, both countries practiced the process differently. This article in particular highlights the contrast of the two cultures. For instance, mummification in Egypt was expensive and something only the elite could afford. However, the Chinchorro cultural practice of mummification was more inclusive. While the process of mummification differed between the two cultures, the mummification process demonstrated the importance of death and afterlife in both cultures.

  2. I found it very interesting and thought-provoking to compare the two different historical cultures that both participated in mummifying their deceased and found it very interesting how a topic as specific as mummification could be more diverse and different between cultures as I had thought they were. I had no idea that there was any other society that preserved their dead. A question that I would have liked to see be answered, even though it would be very difficult, if not impossible, would be why these people of Chinchorro were less “respectful” (for lack of a better word) to the bodies of the deceased. I understand that they thought that the body and the soul were separate by was there some sort of spiritual or mystical belief that they had that led them to come to that belief? Also, if they weren’t as respectful to the bodies, why would they bother to preserve the bodies of the dead at all? Wouldn’t the fact that they preserved the dead bodies showed that they had at least some sort of respect for the deceased and their bodies?

  3. The mummification process in ancient Egypt is very similar to modern day embalming practices, where the body is preserved in a presentable way after death. Certain precautions were put in place that ensured the body defies the normal decaying process and remains preserved for a longer period than normal, exactly what embalming is meant to do. Embalming allows the body of an individual to be preserved so loved ones can see a presentable version of their loved ones one final time before death. The fact that these people successfully “embalmed” the mummies for so long and heavily decorated there tombs preceding proven successes in medical practices is astonishing. First they discovered how bacteria catalyzes the decomposition process and realized they needed to remove the organs from the body to preserve it longer. Then the brain was carefully removed using “hooks in the nostrils and pounding the bones and brain tissue allowing for a passageway for the loose brain fragments and liquid ooze out.” This whole processes just shows how ahead of their time the Egyptians were. To prove this point further, the Egyptians used a salt mixture called “natron” to dry the body. This is why the bodies were so successfully preserved and lasted thousands of years.

  4. It is super interesting to learn about the Chinchorro practice of mummification in contrast to the prototypical Egyptian practice because of the perspectives each culture had about death. It is not uncommon that long-standing religious/cultural practices are a result of ancient practices, but to be able to see examples of those ancient practices is always amazing and insightful. It is interesting that the issue of respect for the dead is brought up about Egyptian mummies because, until recently, one mummy believed to be connected to the ancient Egyptian queen Nefertiti was not allowed to be tested for DNA nor X-rays. I imagine that as science progresses we might be able to conduct enlightening tests on mummies more and more while still giving due respect to these dead.

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