Ancient Egyptians’ practice of mummifying the dead got its start as early as 6,330 years ago among groups that farmed and raised animals, a contested new study suggests. The find pushes back the use of resins and other embalming agents to about 1,500 years earlier than previously thought, well before the age of the pharaohs and pyramids.
Prehistoric communities that raised cattle, goats and sheep in central Egypt, between the Nile River and the Red Sea, wrapped their dead in linens. The fabric was soaked in the same preservative mixture that was used more than 3,000 years later, when mummification reached its zenith in ancient Egypt, says a team led by archaeologist Jana Jones of Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia.
Her team performed chemical analyses of linen wrapping, fragments of reed mats and human skin from 16 bodies recovered at two Egyptian cemeteries nearly 100 years ago. The researchers conclude August 13 in PLOS ONE that experimentation with embalming substances started surprisingly early and was a forerunner of classic Egyptian mummification.
Many of those who study ancient Egypt suspect that the inspiration for mummification came from observing that bodiesburied in shallow pits in the desert got preserved through rapid drying in extreme heat. The new study suggests artificial mummification began with wrapping corpses with linen coated in a resin preservative. Over time, the practice expanded to involve removing and drying internal organs before placing them back inside the dead.
The goal of mummification was to ensure that the body and spirit were prepared for the afterlife.
“Our findings of linen impregnated with embalming agents force a fundamental reassessment of the origins of Egyptian mummification,” says archaeological chemist and study coauthor Stephen Buckley of the University of York in England.
Archaeologist and Egyptologist Donald Redford of Penn State is skeptical. It’s hard to know why people applied the substance identified in the new study to linens placed over corpses around 6,000 years ago, he says. The earliest confirmed attempts to preserve bodies artificially date to roughly 4,600 years ago, when pharaohs had the first pyramids built, Redford says. Before then, “I know of no other evidence that embalming had even dawned on the thinking of Egyptians.”
Linen wrapped around bodies in the two ancient cemeteries contained traces of an embalming mixture, Jones’ team asserts. This substance’s ingredients included plant oil or animal fat, pine resin, a once pleasant-smelling plant extract, plant gum or sugar, wax and petroleum. The antibacterial properties of pine resin and the plant extract aided tissue preservation, the researchers propose.
Radiocarbon dating of linen swatches from four bodies removed from the ancient cemeteries yielded dates between around 6,330 and 4,950 years ago. None of the bodies bear evidence of internal organ removal or any of the other steps in the mummification process later employed in Egypt.