The origins of mummification may have started in ancient Egypt 1,500 years earlier than previously thought, according to a study published August 13, 2014 in the open-access journal PLOS ONE by Stephen Buckley from University of York and colleagues from Macquarie University and University of Oxford.
Previous evidence suggests that between ~4500 B.C. and 3100 B.C., Egyptian mummification consisted of bodies desiccating naturally through the action of the hot, dry desert sand. The early use of resins in artificial mummification has, until now, been limited to isolated occurrences during around 2200 BC, becoming more frequent between 2000-1600 BC.
Researchers studying funerary textiles from bodies in tombs in one of the earliest recorded ancient Egyptian cemeteries, ~ 4500 B.C. – 3350 B.C, found the presence of complex embalming agents in linen wrappings. Scientists used biochemical analysis to identify a pine resin, an aromatic plant extract, a plant gum/sugar, a natural petroleum source, and a plant oil/animal fat in the funerary wrappings.
These results suggest that embalming agents may have been used up to a millennium earlier than previously thought. The agents constitute complex, processed recipes of the same natural products, in similar proportions, as those employed at the zenith of Pharaonic mummification some 3,000 years later.
Dr Buckley said: "The antibacterial properties of some of these ingredients and the localised soft-tissue preservation that they would have afforded lead us to conclude that these represent the very beginnings of experimentation that would evolve into the mummification practice of the Pharaonic period."
Dr Buckley added: "These resinous recipes applied to the prehistoric linen wrapped bodies contained antibacterial agents, used in the same proportions employed by the Egyptian embalmers when their skill was at its peak, some 2500-3000 years later."
Adapted by PLOS ONE from release provided by David Garner.
In your coverage please use this URL to provide access to the freely available paper: http://dx.plos.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0103608
Jones J, Higham TFG, Oldfield R, O'Connor TP, Buckley SA (2014) Evidence for Prehistoric Origins of Egyptian Mummification in Late Neolithic Burials. PLoS ONE 9(8): e103608. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0103608
Support for this research has been provided by: Professor Joann Fletcher and Pharos Research (SAB); The Wellcome Trust (Grant Number WT074315) (SAB); The National Endowment for Science Technology and the Arts (NESTA) (SAB); and Macquarie University (JJ). The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.
The authors have declared that no competing interests exist.