Five things I learned at Mummies of the World: The Exhibition

by Elizabeth Galante

 

As a former teacher, I know that most parents ask their students when they get home “what did you learn today?” and they more often than not receive a shoulder shrug or a one-word response like “stuff” and “things”. I imagine it’s frustrating trying to connect with your student with a relevant question but not knowing enough details about their day to ask more. I can tell you it’s just as frustrating as the teacher knowing the amount of effort put into lesson planning doesn’t get a more exciting answer. So in honor of the shoulder shrug, I give you five questions to ask your students about the exhibition with answers to guide the conversation.

 

1. What actually is a mummy?
A mummy is a human or animal that has been preserved after death so that it does not decompose or rot. In order to be considered a mummy, the body must keep some of its soft tissue, such has hair, skin, or muscles.

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King Tutankhamen’s mummy with its famous gold mask

 

2. Where are the mummies in the exhibit from?
The Exhibit includes mummies from Europe, South America, and Ancient Egypt, and I learned that mummies have been found all over the world!

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The Orlovits Family, mummies from Hungary

 

3. Are there different kinds of mummies?
There are two kinds of mummification: natural and intentional (on purpose).
• Natural mummies are preserved by the environment in which they died. This may include warm and dry climates, such as a desert or attic; cold and dry climates, such as the top of the Andes Mountains; and/or due to chemicals, such as acids and salts, like in a bog.
• Intentional mummification is typically done for cultural and religious purposes, as was the case in Ancient Egypt where they believed that the body needed to be preserved to keep the soul intact after death.

This spiny-tailed lizard from the Sahara Desert is an example of a modern-day mummy -- probably less than 100 years old. It was mummified by the hot, dry air of the desert. This lizard is part of the Mummies of the World exhibition, the largest traveling exhibition of mummies and artifacts ever assembled, opening at the California Science Center in Los Angeles on July 1, 2010. Credit: American Exhibitions, Inc.

This spiny-tailed lizard from the Sahara Desert is an example of a modern-day mummy — probably less than 100 years old. It was mummified by the hot, dry air of the desert. This lizard is part of the Mummies of the World exhibition, the largest traveling exhibition of mummies and artifacts ever assembled, opening at the California Science Center in Los Angeles on July 1, 2010. Credit: American Exhibitions, Inc.

 

4. Why are CT scans used on mummies?
CT (Computer Tomography) scanning and carbon dating is able to tell a lot about a mummy, such as how old the person was when they died, the sex of the person, any injuries or disease that the person had during their lifetime as well as their diet. Sometimes it is possible to determine the cause of death or the occupation of the person.

 

5. What can we learn from researching mummies?
The above research helps us learn from the past and adapt for the future. By analyzing their diets, we are able to learn about vitamin deficiencies, cavities, heart disease, and cancer. By assessing their cause of death, we are able to learn about disease, such as tuberculosis, which is an increasing problem in certain populations around the globe. By studying their clothes, we are able to learn about the evolution of technology, including the way their clothes were produced and the art forms used in their design.
Now that you’ve learned more about it, come visit HMNS before the exhibit wraps up in May!

The Mysterious Mummies of Chile

In preparation for the opening of “Mummies of the World” at the end of this month (Member preview: Friday, 9/23, public opening at Noon on Saturday, 9/24) we will be posting a series of blogs exploring the science of mummification. Today, the subject will be Chinchorro mummies.

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Photo courtesy of wikimedia commons: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Chinchorro_mummy,_south_coast_of_Peru_or_north_coast_of_Chile,_5000-2000_BC_-_San_Diego_Museum_of_Man_-_DSC06921.JPG

Most people associate mummies with ancient Egypt, but the Egyptians were not the first, nor the most successful artists in that craft. Both of those titles belong to South America. Some of the oldest artificially preserved mummies ever found were made by artisans of the Chinchorro culture in what is now Chile. The Chinchorro culture began mummifying their dead more than 7,000 years ago, 2,000 years before the Egyptians adopted the process.

Although the best preserved mummies produced in South America date to long after the Chinchorro disappeared, more in the range of a thousand years ago, the Chinchorro mummies are still quite complex. There are generally considered to be 3 phases of Chinchorro mummification method:

-black
-red
-mud coated

(Sometimes different phrasing is used, or the periods in which elaborate preservation methods are not used are added)

The earliest method of artificial mummification practiced by the Chinchorro, the black method, is quite interesting. The body of the deceased would be skinned, then the bones cleaned. Once those bones were nice and clean-ish, they would be tied back together with cordage, usually made of plant fiber. The jaw would be lashed to the skull, the joints would be tied together and reinforced with sticks to form kind of a skeletal armature. After that, the skin would go back over the body.

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Photo courtesy of wikimedia commons: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:ChinchorroMummiesSanMiguelDeAzapa.jpg

Unfortunately, the skin of Chinchorro mummies was preserved in a rather rudimentary way: by drying, sometimes over hot coals or ash. A side effect of this drying process is shrinkage. In fact, this same method was often used to preserve the famous shrunken heads produced by certain Amazonian cultures. In the Amazon, the shrinkage made for a nice, portable trophy/spiritual symbol, but for the Chinchorro it just made things more complicated. In order to fit back over the body, the skin of some Chinchorro mummies was patched up with the skin of animals like seals and pelicans. The resulting bag of bones would then be stuffed with plant material to look more plump and lively.

Next comes the head. The head would often be cut from the body before the skinning process began, possibly in order to clean the brain out. It was desirable that the ancestors have faces in the afterlife, but a face can be a hard thing to preserve, so a new one would often be shaped out of a grey paste made from ash and some kind of binder, like eggs, or animal blood. These faces are kind of the trade mark of the Chinchorro mummies. They are pretty creepy: they have little, round eyes and a gaping mouth. Some say they look very surprised, or perhaps terrified. I think they look rather childish and innocent. They remind me of the crude figures produced by pre-schoolers I used to present to.

And in a way, they do represent a sort of innocence. The Chinchorro people were hunter-gatherers, who had no social stratification. The mummies belonging to this culture that have been discovered show no signs of social differentiation, they all have the same delicate mother of pearl fish hooks, the same basketry buried with them. Some studies have found that men are more commonly found to be buried with hunting tools, like atlatls, while women are more commonly buried with fishing tools, but this is simply a division of labor based on sex, one job does not seem to hold higher esteem than the other.

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Bodies in the sand found at Arica, a major Chinchorro site. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia comons: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Chinchorro_mummy_bodies_Arica.jpg

So in a way you could say that these burials: not beautiful, but executed with a level of difficulty to suggest great love and devotion, do represent a very different, if not innocent, motive for mummification. The Egyptians and the Inca used their most elaborate processes of mummification to preserve their elite, while commoners just did the best they could. Some suggest that this unique, egalitarian practice of mummification in Chile was the result of frequent climate change. In wetter periods, populations of fishing villages would boom, and their toolkits would be refined by the innovation associated with these boom periods. Thanks to the changing climate, villagers would uncover the naturally mummified corpses of their predecessors in the desert, exposed after storms or by the wind, and would assume that this process of preservation is necessary for one to enter the next life. Over time, artificial mummification would become popular, as people sought to ensure that they were preserved for the next world.

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Photo courtesy of Desert Exploring

It is likely this boom and bust pattern that allowed complex ritual behavior to evolve in a society that was less politically complex than Ancient Egypt, or the Inca Empire. The Egyptian mummification processes, for example,  evolved as their political system, with its organization and improved infrastructure, also evolved. Essentially, as their population grew over time, their political and social systems were refined and developed.  The Chinchorro were developing their elaborate burial practices without having to also increase their political complexity. Population growth occurred as a result of the environment changing favorably. In their generous environment, there was no pressure to make up complex, hierarchical, political systems in order to survive.

This is the theory that some archaeologist propose, however the Chinchorro people still hold on to some of their mysteries, and researchers are looking forward to discovering more details as the mummies are studied.

If this article has wet your apatite for more mummy knowledge, check out www.mummies of the world.com for information on our upcoming exhibit!

 

Return to Paraguay: Conserving the Taguá, a Living Fossil

In 1972, mammalogist Ralph Wetzel and colleagues were studying armadillo ectoparasites in the Paraguayan Chaco when they came upon a peccary (what we call javelina in Texas) that didn’t look like those already known to science. The result was Catagonus wagneri – the Chacoan peccary, known only from a fossil discovered in 1930 by Argentinian paleontologist Rusconi. During the next two decades following this discovery, a cadre of various scientists ventured to Paraguay to learn everything they could about this rare living fossil. Some such as Jon Mayer and Phil Brandt went on to other careers, while others such as noted peccary biologist Lyle Sowls have passed on.

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Chacoan peccary or taguá (Catagonus wagneri).

I was fortunate in being the youngest of this earlier wave of scientists. In 2008, for my first blog ever for BEYONDbones, I wrote about my experience in the Paraguayan Chaco, fresh out of undergraduate training. Here is the part relevant to today’s blog, taken directly from the Introduction of the 2008 blog:

“I spent 1989-1990 studying a semi-captive baited herd of Chacoan peccaries (Catagonus wagneri), an endangered medium-sized mammal endemic to the Chaco biome of central South America; taguá is the Guaraní Indian word for this distant relative of the pig sub-order. They are extremely rare, and very few people ever see a live one in the wild. Writing this piece takes me back to a time when I accomplished a lot by knowing very little. Only in my early 20s, I did a lot of growing up during my stint in the Chaco – hot water, electricity, air-conditioning, phones, TVs, stereos, etc. were nonexistent in my life, but the fauna was diverse and abundant, and the studies I was able to accomplish during my time there paved way for a lifetime of disciplined work.”

In early February 2016, I received an invitation to attend an international workshop in Asunción (Paraguay’s capital) dedicated to creating an action plan for the taguá. I received this with very mixed feelings, having not worked intensively with taguá for nearly three decades since I was very young and very green. I contacted the workshop coordinator to express my concern, and she gently and politely let me know that it was her hopes to get all the taguá biologists, present and past, together in one room, where the young could learn from the older and vice-versa. After figuring out how to get to the meeting and get the necessary blessings and permissions, I was holding plane tickets to return to Paraguay…

When I first went to Paraguay in the late 1980s to work with taguá, barely a handful of people were interested in this endangered species, let alone conserving them. I was truly heartened to see that has changed at this workshop!  All the necessary stakeholders were represented at the meeting – not just scientists, but also indigenous Guaraní who depend on taguá for protein and the hide for other uses. Landowners and administrators who advise ranchers on integrating wildlife and ranching were present, including representatives from the Mennonite colonies (Mennonites occupy a good chunk of the range where taguá occur in Paraguay) and important government officials including the heads of National Parks for certain states.

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Geographic range of the Taguá in the Chaco of Bolivia, Paraguay and Argentina.

In total there more than 30 representatives from the range of the taguá (Argentina, Paraguay and Bolivia) as well as a few biologists from other countries who met from late February to early March for a week of intensive meetings. On the first day of the meeting, the taguá biologists worked on reviewing the taguá’s status and distribution, and generating a population viability and habitat suitability analysis (PVHA) using a computer modeling program called Vortex. Various life history parameters from data I collected as a youth were entered into the computer program, and it spat out the number of individuals necessary to conserve the taguá well into the future.

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During the remaining three days, participants worked on identifying a vision for the action plan based on the main primary threats to the taguá. Participants were separated into three break-out working groups (habitat loss, hunting, lack of knowledge) to determine isolating problems and goals and actions that address the main threats to the taguá. The latter group (lack of knowledge) also worked on identifying potential roles for captive breeding programs. Additionally, a network of committed professionals and institutions was created to put the recommendations and priority actions into practice.

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The habitat loss break-out working group.

I think everyone enjoyed getting to work with other like-minded people toward a common goal. It was a lot of fun reuniting with old friends after so many years, as well as building new friendships. Hopefully, the governments of Argentina, Paraguay and Bolivia will incorporate the action plan into their respective conservation planning.

Today, Juan Campos is the director of the project I worked on so many years ago. The project’s name has been changed to CCCI/Proyecto Taguá (translated: Chaco Center for Conservation and Investigations/The Taguá Project). Juan is a true gentleman and is doing some outstanding work!  We are currently making plans to collaborate on various projects.

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Juan Campos, left, with a current version of yours truly.

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Me circa 1989.

The man who initially sent me to Paraguay was Dr. Kurt Benirschke, who was one of the originators of the concept of breeding endangered species in captivity as a conservation tool. He is also the father of former San Diego Charger’s star kicker, Rolf Benirschke! Kurt instilled some great concepts in me at a very young age, like the one and only medicine you need in life is hard work. He used to tell wonderful stories of wildlife encounters he had in Paraguay and other areas. I remember on one such occasion he was telling me that just 25 years ago (some time around 1964), massive woolly spider monkeys or muriquis (Brachyteles arachnoides) lived in the tri-country region of I’guasu, but sadly the species had gone extinct. One of the most funny, yet very real and bittersweet moments of the week involved some storytelling of my own. Some of the younger biologists, newer yet already very experienced with Paraguay’s wildlife, were lamenting that black howler monkeys (Alouatta caraya) were now becoming extremely rare in Paraguay. I told them they were mistaken, since I remembered them from when I lived in Paraguay just 27 years ago. They were extremely common, even in the neighborhoods of Asunción, where it was possible to see them using utility lines to get around! My new, younger friends looked at each other with shock, then looked at me with suspicion, and cautiously informed me that howler monkeys disappeared from Asunción many years ago. Saddened by this, I realized that things had come full circle – another fantastic, large and charismatic vertebrate had become locally extinct in another span of roughly 25 years. Hopefully it won’t be too late for the taguá…

Camera trap captures video of kinkajou in South America

Tom Williams, my father-in-law, is a retired oil prospector who has a fascination with all things science and engineering. As such, he always gets me gifts for birthdays and holidays that he thinks will benefit me in my work (scientific texts, gadgets, etc). Last May, he gave me a fairly high-tech game trail camera with mounting attachment. This was delivered to my old study site (now new again?) in the Peruvian Amazon, by Ron Rossi, a Science Technology instructor from Michigan who spends a lot of time at the Amazon Explorama Lodges, just as I used to many years ago… In fact, today Ron runs a non-profit called EKOAmazon that does wonderful things for the communities living in the region.

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Kinkajou. Flickr Creative Commons.

Our initial plan was to monument the camera at a mineral lick at a reserve up the Sucusari Tributary off the Napo River, which Ron did last June. When he visited again earlier this month he realized that nothing was recorded yet, so went ahead and moved the camera to Platform 7 of Explorama’s world-famous Amazon Canopy Walkway at ACTS (Amazon Conservatory for Tropical Studies). It was with much excitement when he sent me news and the attached clip of a kinkajou (Potos flavus) visiting the bait site of bananas at Platform 7. The kinkajou is a member of the raccoon family (Procyonidae) that is built like a primate to eat fruit. It has a prehensile tail, which is strong enough to wrap about branches to secure the animal’s weight when it is foraging or moving among branches, essentially serving as a “fifth arm.”

The other exciting news is Ron was able to set up the camera at a bird’s nest. Unknowingly at the time, and very luckily, the nest happened to be that of a species of antbird of which virtually nothing is known of its nest, and absolutely nothing documented for parental care. We plan on publishing that information later, so stay tuned…