Not Egyptians, as one might think. The first mummy makers were Chinchorros, hunter-gatherers who lived about 7,000 years ago in Atacama Desert near the border between modern-day Chile and Peru. The SEF editor Michael Hochberg is a co-author of a multidisciplinary article that explains how this cultural practice may have evolved. The study (whose first author, Pablo Marquet, is also a good friend) was published in PNAS this week.
Preserved by one of Earth’s driest climates, a long-buried corpse in Chile’s Atacama Desert retains centuries-old skin, hair, and clothing (Source: NationalGeograhic.com).
The authors of the study found that the period when Chinchorros were preserving and decorating corpses coincided with elevated availability of freshwater, which resulted in increased population size. The explanation for the rise of this cultural practice, favored by Marquet and co-authors, has two components: original cultural mutation and its subsequent elaboration.
The extreme aridity of the area resulted in natural mummification of corpses. The landscape inhabited by the Chinchorros could have been literally littered with dead persons, similar to the one shown in the image above. This could have given the Chinchorros the initial idea leading to artificial preservation of bodies (which would simply be an elaboration of an already naturally occurring process). But when the population increased, there were more people to invent elaborations of the original practice. Actually, my Russian colleague Andrey Korotayev suggests that the number of new innovations may be proportional not to the number of potential innovators, but to its square. Thus, a fairly modest increase in the population size could have led to a much greater rate at which cultural innovations were produced.
Eventually very elaborate mummification rituals evolved:
Laid to rest on woven reeds, a bewigged prehistoric boy—or a reasonable facsimile—bears evidence to the Chinchorro’s complex mummification rituals. Rather than preserving flesh, the desert people used a paste of manganese-infused ash to sculpt “bodies” atop defleshed skeletons, whose internal organs had been replaced with earth (Source: NationalGeograhic.com).
But complex cultural practices can only be preserved as long as population numbers are high enough, as was mathematically shown in a recent paper by team of scientists, led by Joe Henrich. So when climate changed, and Chinchorro numbers declined, they abandoned artificial mummification rituals.
More on the story can be seen in these publications: