New analysis of Mesolithic burials in Portugal suggests that hunter-gatherer communities in this area may have been practicing deliberate mummification 8,000 years ago.
Until now, the earliest evidence for intentional human mummification came from the Atacama Desert in northern Chile, c.7,000 years ago. However, researchers have identified possible evidence of even older mummification in Europe, using photographs of skeletal remains excavated in the Sado Valley, south-west Portugal, in the 1960s. The rolls of film documenting excavations of the Mesolithic burial sites of Poças de São Bento and Arapouco had been lost for many years, but were recently rediscovered. Researchers studied these photographs using the principles of archaeothanatology, a discipline that analyses archaeological human remains by observing the spatial distribution of the bones and combining this information with knowledge about how the human body decomposes after death.
They discovered that at least one of the burials displayed characteristics consistent with mummification, including an absence of disarticulation among the bones, even in areas where it would normally be expected, such as the fingers and toes, and an unusual degree of flexion in the position of the body. The researchers suggest that these burials may have been the result of a guided natural mummification process. While it is unknown how mummification was achieved, human-decomposition experiments conducted by Hayley Mickleburgh, one of the authors, at the Forensic Anthropology Research Facility at Texas State University at San Marcos, suggest that human involvement in the mummification process would have been required to shape the bodies into the highly flexed position observed in some of these burials. To achieve this state, the bodies may have been placed on elevated structures to allow the decomposition fluids to drain away, perhaps with a fire maintained nearby to accelerate desiccation. It would also have been necessary to tighten the bandages around the body over time, to compress it into the desired position. This suggests that if mummification was practiced among the Mesolithic people of the Sado Valley, it may have been a communal activity that had a significant place in the society’s mortuary practices. Mummification would also have made the bodies easier to transport by making them lighter and more compact, and it is possible that this technique was utilised to help the community transport the human remains to specific burial sites as well.
The results of the research have been published in the European Journal of Archaeology (https://doi.org/10.1017/eaa.2022.3).