A new study published in the European Journal of Archaeology has found that mummification of the dead was more common in prehistory than previously thought. By analyzing 8,000-year-old remains discovered at the hunter-gatherer burial sites in the Sado Valley in Portugal, the archaeologists have shown that pre-burial treatments such as desiccation through mummification were common in European Mesolithic communities.
Until recently, the oldest cases of intentional mummification were known from the Chinchorro hunter-gatherer populations living in the coastal regions of the Atacama Desert in northern Chile about 7,000 years ago. However, most surviving mummies worldwide are more recent dating between a few hundreds and 4,000 years ago.
Using photographs of the skeletal remains of thirteen individuals excavated in the 1960s in the Sado Valley Mesolithic shell middens in Portugal, the researchers managed to reconstruct the positions in which the bodies were buried. The analysis revealed a hyperflexion of the limbs, an absence of disarticulation in significant parts of the skeleton, and a rapid infilling of sediment around the bones.
Although during decomposition, the bones usually become disarticulated at weak joints such as the feet, in these particular cases, the articulations were surprisingly well conserved. According to the scientists, this pattern of hyperflexion and lack of disarticulation could only be explained if the bodies were not put in the graves as fresh cadavers, but in desiccated states as mummified corpses. The process of desiccation maintains some of these otherwise weak articulations, and allows for a strong flexion of the body since the range of movement increases when the volume of soft tissue is smaller.
The archaeologists suggest that the observed skeletal patterns could be the product of a guided natural mummification process. The manipulation of the bodies would have taken place over a long period of time, during which the bodies would gradually become desiccated to maintain their integrity, and simultaneously contracted by ropes or bandages to compress them into certain desired positions. When this process was finished, the bodies would have been easier to transport and buried while retaining their appearance and anatomic integrity.
These findings suggest that mortuary practices were very important in European Mesolithic communities, with hunter-gatherer populations paying significant attention in maintaining the integrity of dead bodies, following principles that were culturally regulated. Further research is needed to shed more light on the cultural and religious beliefs and habits of these prehistoric populations and their influence on ritual behavior.