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Fossil Friday: There Many Different Kinds of Fossils! Part 3

Updated: Aug 9, 2022

Quiz (Answers to the quiz are found at the end of this blog).

1) For the process of mummification to occur, usually an extremely hot or cold and a _____________ climate must also be present.

a) Moist

b) Dry

c) High altitude

d) Low altitude

3) The earliest mummies were always found _______________________________________.

a) With cloth wrappings protecting them.

b) In the highest altitudes.

c) As highly stylized representations of their culture.

d) As a natural product of their environment.

More on Preserved Fossils...MUMMIES!

By Synthia Durrant

Mummies are a kind of preserved fossil. Usually mummies don't last for more than a few thousand years because they are made of organic material that is prone to disintegration. Most mummies are made through a process of desiccation, (the removal of water from the body).

The first mummies occurred naturally in dry environments. Mummies can occur in cold or warm climates, but they will have their best chance of forming and remaining intact (recognizable as a mummy) in a cold, dry climate, often at a very high altitude or in extremely hot, dry climates that causes a body to dry out quickly before it has a chance to decompose (1).

An image of the mummified body of a reclining native girl around 13 years old. She is wearing traditional clothing. Her legs are crossed and her head is tipped forward with her chin lightly touching her chest. She almost appears to be napping rather than deceased.
The "Llullaillaco Maiden" is an example of a natural mummy from around 500 years ago. She is presumed to be a victim of Incan child sacrifice. Her body was found on the Argentine side of the Andes near the Chilean border in South America. The high altitude and cold, dry climate protected her body from decomposition for around 500 years. She is so well preserved that in some photographs, she appears to be sleeping (A).

Many naturally occurring mummies have been found in the Andes mountains in South America. The climate is very dry and cold in higher altitudes and many mummies, both naturally occurring and man-made, have been discovered in this region (2). Less frequently, mummies may also be found in wet environments.

A photograph of human remains protruding from a glacier.
Otzi is one of the rare exceptions to the rule that mummies usually occur in dry environments. Otzi's remains were discovered in the Tyrolean Alps in Austria. They were encased for the last 5,000 years or so in ice, which effectively freeze-dried Otzi. His body lay undisturbed in the exact position it fell when he died (B).

Mummies have been found in high mountain passes and glaciers. Sometimes, these mummies are only a few decades old, but other times, these mummies can date back thousands of years. Items found with these kinds of human remains can tell anthropologists a lot about the people and cultures that once existed in these areas (3).

A model of a Bronze Age Man. He is smiling and wearing leather pants and carrying a spear.
Artifacts found along side of Otzi, The Ice Man (whose mummy was discovered in Austrian Alps) helped anthropologist construct a real life model of Otzi. Discoveries such as these help us to understand the cultures of people who have long since vanished (C).

The Ice Man, "Otzi" was found with many artifacts that help to tell the mostly unknown story of the European Bronze Age culture. Otzi was found with remnants of clothing, grass shoes, bow and arrows, a metal axe and a stone knife. His body was so well preserved that scientists were able to deduce he passed away unexpectedly, most likely due to murder! (4).

An ancient roughly woven sheath next to a stone point knife.
Otzi was discovered with this stone knife and sheath (D).

Why did some cultures mummify their dead?

It makes sense that the locations where natural mummification occurs would also be the places that ancient people began mummifying (the process of making a mummy) the bodies of their dead on purpose. Egypt has a naturally dry climate. Mummification became the normal way of caring for the dead in ancient Egypt. Anthropologist think this was because mummification in their soil occurs naturally due to a chemical called natron (natron is like a combination of salt and baking soda) (6).

The climate and soil of ancient Egypt caused a lot of natural mummies to form when people buried their dead. Later, when these bodies were discovered intact, the ancient people began experimenting with ways of creating mummies on purpose. After many generations, the ancient Egyptian art and custom of mummification was created.

A close-up profile view of a mummified human showing great facial detail
An example of an Egyptian mummy that has had it's bindings removed. You can see how well the mummification process was perfected by the ancient Egyptians. Facal features are still very obvious and the overall sense of this person's face is still present (E).

The best chance of mummification occurs when the natural bacteria that occurs in the body is removed. For this reason, most processes of artificial mummification start with removing the internal organs from the body very soon after death. Chemicals that cause the body to lose water and other chemicals that inhibit the growth of bacteria will aid in the process of mummification (7).

Side by side images. One image shows an ancient clary representation of a wild cat. The second image is an x-ray of the first showing the mummified remains of a cat inside of the clay cat.
This is an example of an Egyptian mummified cat. It is enclosed in a clay casket that is intended to take on the shape the cat had in life. This was often, but not always, the case with mummified animals. An x-ray image demonstrates that inside the clay casing, there is an actual mummified cat (F).

Mummification can occur in human beings and in animals and examples of natural and man made mummification has been found in both humans and animals.

Close up image of an amazingly well preserved woman. Her face is framed in dark read hair. She is wearing a heavy woolen cap. Her eyes are closed and her eyelashes are apparent. Her mouth is closed and her lips are preserved in a pleasant, relaxed position.
The Beauty of Xiaohe was discovered with several of her tribe's people along the historic Silk Road in the Tarim Basin, China. Through DNA testing, this group of people was unexpectedly discovered to be caucasian and of western European descent. Their remains date back to about 4,000 years ago. They were found with great deals of grave goods and other artifacts that have told anthropologists a lot about the culture of these people (G).

Several mummies of red-haired, caucasian people have been found in the Tarim Basin region of China. DNA testing has indicated that these people likely originated in western Europe. There were so many grave goods (items left inside of the grave for sentimental reasons or for the spiritual journey into the after life) that anthropologists were able to learn about their culture (8).

The image depicts a stylized Chinchorro mummy of a young girl. The mummy has amazingly intact long brown hair. The mask of the girl is badly cracked but you can still make out the human features, eyes, nose, and mouth.
The Chinchorro people began purposefully mummifying their dead around 7,000 years ago. This Chinchorro mummy is the body of a young, female child. The highly stylized process of Chinchorro mummification renders the mummified body into a permanent "doll-like" appearance. However, all of the human skin and hair remain relatively intact. This process results in an uncanny human appearance that is unique to the Chinchorro culture beginning around 7,000 years ago (I).

The oldest man-made mummies ever found date from around 7,000 years ago. These are known as the Chinchorro Mummies of Peru, South America. The Chinchorro culture originated in the very dry Atacama Desert region near the Andes Mountains. Natural mummies have been found in this area dating back to around 9,000 years ago. As with the Egyptian culture, it is thought the Chinchorro began purposefully mummifying their dead after noticing the absence of decomposition in naturally interred bodies.

The mummification process for the Chinchorro people was highly stylized (unique only to them) and resulted in most of the internal organs and bones being removed and replaced with objects that could hold a human shape such as various grasses, branches, or stones. The skin was then reshaped and sewn back together. Heavy clay masks were placed on the faces of the dead, as well (9).

The image shows a highly stylized Chinchorro Mummy of a young child (younger than 6 years). The body is bound to it's shape with twine and appears doll like. The heavy clay mask is mostly intact.
This is another example of the stylized Chinchorro Mummies, the oldest of which date back to around 7,000 years ago. This mummy is a child. Notice how the human shape is kept intact through bindings and that the face of the child is covered by a heavy clay mask. At first, scientists believed the Chinchorro Mummies were dolls, but on closer inspection, they discovered all of these "dolls" were covered in human flesh and had a human skull. It was only then that they realized this was a form of mummification in which the bones and internal organs had been removed and replaced with items that would not rot away. The skin and hair were left intact and shaped back into the human form. The time and care this process must have taken was enormous. Also, it should be noted that the Chinchorro people routinely mummified children who had passed away. Mummification of children is not a common cultural practice seen in other cultures that mummified their dead (J).

But, what is the absolute oldest human mummy ever found (so far)?

Believe it or not, it was found right here in Nevada, USA.

A woven grass shirt and rough fabric cover human spinal bones.
Naturally mummified human remains were discovered in Spirit Cave near Fallon, Nevada. Amazingly, it was discovered through DNA testing that these remains are related to current members of the Paiute-Shoshone Native American Tribe (H).

The earliest remains of natural mummification were found to date back to about 9,400 years ago. These remains were found in Spirit Cave in Nevada, USA. They belong to the Nevada Fallon Reservation Paiute-Shoshone Tribe of Native Americans. The remains are mostly skeletal, but also consist of grass and rough woven fabric and other grave goods. Also, DNA was found that link the mummified person to current, living members of the Paiute-Shoshone Tribe. While there is very little "body" left, this naturally occurring mummy provides amazing cultural insight to the people who existed in the region nearly 10,000 years ago (10).

Mummified remains, while not the oldest form of preserved fossil, can tell scientists so much about the culture of the people who once lived in the region they were found. Entire books have been written from the information discovered in, on, and around mummies. DNA histories have been changed because of them. Entirely new cultures have been "discovered" because of mummies and the grave goods found with them. Mummies provide a unique insight into human culture and pre-history that can be gleaned no other way.

There were so many interesting photographs and stories surrounding the mummies that I have posted and many, many more that were too numerous to include. I encourage you to follow the links attached to this post if you are interested in learning more about mummies.

Quiz Answers

1) For the process of mummification to occur, usually extremely hot or cold and a _____________ climate must also be present?

b) Dry

3) The earliest mummies were always found _______________________________________.

d) As a natural product of their environment.


desiccation--the removal of water

grave goods--items intentionally left with a body

highly stylized--unique only to the person or group

intact--not decomposed or destroyed

mummifying--the process of making a mummy

natron--a chemical found in Egyptian soil that promotes natural mummification



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