Archaeologists have found evidence that the remains in Portugal’s Sado Valley were mummified before burial, making them the oldest mummies in the world, being around 1,000 years older.
When Portuguese archaeologist Manuel Farinha dos Santos died in 2001, he left behind a series of photographs he took during an excavation in the Sado Valley in the 1960s. Now researchers say these rediscovered photographs depict the earliest known mummies ever found.
This illustration shows how a fresh cadaver will affect the surrounding soil compared to a dried cadaver.
In a study published in the European Journal of Archeology, researchers suggest that the nearly 8,000-year-old Sado Valley remains bear clear traces of mummification. “Some bodies may have been mummified prior to burial, emphasizing the importance of both the body and the burial site in Mesolithic southwestern Portugal,” the authors write in their study.
Skeletons that give clues to what mummification was like in the Mesolithic
Archaeologists examined a number of factors to make this determination. They used a method called archaeotheatology to analyze the 13 remains and compared the skeletons to dissociation experiments conducted by the Forensic Anthropology Research Facility at Texas State University.
Skeleton discovered in the Sado Valley in Portugal
First of all, they noticed that a skeleton’s bones were “extremely bent” or moved behind their natural position. This suggests they’ve been tied in place by ties that have since decayed.
Second, the bones of this skeleton were still in place; that is, their joints were not separated. This indicates that the body was not buried as a fresh cadaver but as a mummy and these bones were kept in place.
Reconstitution of mummies, skeletons and bone design
And finally, the land around the tomb looked largely undisturbed. Had the body been buried without mummification, its soft tissue would have decomposed, creating spaces that would be filled with sediment. Since this soil appears solid, it indicates that the body was not rotting and therefore was already a mummy when buried.
The researchers theorized that ancient humans had a methodological way to prepare their mummies, based on decomposition experiments. Presumably they tied them up, placed them on a high platform to drain their fluids, and used fire to dry the corpses.
Reconstruction of the spatial distribution of prehistoric burials
In their study, archaeologists hypothesized that ancient people mummified them to make them easier to transport, possibly to bury them in an important place. “These practices also highlight the importance of burials and the importance of bringing the dead to these places in a way that contains and preserves the body according to culturally established principles.”
If archaeologists are right in their assumptions, then the 8,000-year-old Sado Valley mummies would be the oldest ever found. The oldest mummy found in Chile’s Atacama Desert is 1,000 years younger than the Portuguese.
Bones found during excavations in Portugal
The earliest Egyptian mummies known to exist date from around 4,000 years ago, but there is evidence to suggest that they began mummifying bodies as early as 5,700 for mummification. The mummy, made by the earliest humans ever found in Europe, dates back to 1,000 BC.
It’s certainly possible that older people used mummification to preserve remains in Europe. But unlike mummies from Egypt or Chile, wetter conditions in Europe mean ancient mummies wouldn’t survive for long.