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Here's Why These Ancient Mummies Are Oozing Black Goo

Rapidly changing climate conditions are threatening archaeological objects and historical sites around the world, from Chinchorro mummies in Chile to Jamestown in the United States.

by Darren Ankrom
Mar 17 2015, 7:00pm

Photo by Ivan Alvarado/Reuters

Climate change isn't just out to ravage our future; it's after our past, too.

Thousands of years before ancient Egyptians took the practice mainstream, the Chinchorro, who lived in modern-day Chile and Peru, were the world's first group of people to mummify their dead. Despite remaining well preserved for millennia, the mummies — which radiocarbon dating has placed from as far back as 5050 BC — have begun visibly degrading within the past decade, sometimes even turning from preserved body to black, oozing goo.

The problem, according to a team of Harvard University researchers, is bacteria that thrives in high humidity conditions. Arica, the site of the University of Tarapaca's archeological museum in Chile and one of the world's driest places, has recently seen increased moisture, possibly due to climate change, making for a more comfortable home — and a more voracious appetite — for the tiny, mummy-eating microbes.

"We knew the mummies were degrading but nobody understood why," said Professor Ralph Mitchell. "This kind of degradation has never been studied before. We wanted to answer two questions: What was causing it and what could we do to prevent further degradation?"

Some of the nearly 120 mummies housed at the museum, where scientists first noticed the problem, have been affected. Mitchell led the Harvard team, which used samples of both degraded and preserved mummy skin shipped in from Chile, to identify the bacteria and, in turn, excess moisture as the culprit.

'The geographic and cultural quilt that tells the American story is fraying at the edges — and even beginning to be pulled apart — by the impacts of climate change.'

John Van Hoesen, a Green Mountain College professor and 2011 recipient of a Fulbright award to study Chinchorro burial masks, explained the group's unusual mummification style.

"The Chinchorro carefully removed the skin from the bodies, removed the flesh and organs, and then re-created the body using clay, sticks, and sediment. They stretched the skin back over the bodies, often having to insert sea lion skin where the skin dried and contracted too much, and added clay face masks," Van Hoesen told VICE News. "The final step involved painting the masks and skin; the earlier mummies were the black style and the paint was dominated by a manganese-rich paint and the later red styles used more iron ochre."

Mummies in the climate-controlled museum are at risk. But the increase in humidity could be more dangerous to the estimated hundreds of specimens that remain undiscovered.

This theme, of rapidly changing conditions outpacing scientists' efforts to preserve newly-unearthed history, isn't exclusive to the sandy valleys of Arica, nor are the mummies' burial grounds the first heritage site to be threatened by global warming.

Related: Climate change might be the greatest threat to potato cultivation in 8000 years

In Norway's Jotunheimen mountain region, rapidly retreating glaciers have exposed artifacts from Viking ancestors faster than archaeologists can collect them, at times hundreds at once. Their discovery and analysis better our knowledge of these peoples' lives, hunting techniques, and equipment. But the artifacts come with a ticking clock: leather, feathers, and other materials can disintegrate in a matter of days, if undiscovered when their frozen graves melt away.

Van Hoesen called global warming and artifact study a double-edged sword, saying that, as in Norway and in the ancient Greek city of Zeugma, changing conditions have led to new discoveries.

"It is easy to think of climate change as being destructive when we think of hurricanes or increased precipitation," he told VICE News. "But these [Greek] mosaics were likely 'spared' and in such great conditions because the climate warmed and flooded the region. Retreating ice sheets or shrinking lakes may reveal important archaeological sites that help better constrain on the demise of the Neanderthal or Anasazi."

But even in the US, relatively young on a historical scale, some of the most significant places are threatened. The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) spelled out these heightened concerns, site by site, in a 2014 study, analyzing how climate change could damage these highly recognizable, quintessentially American places.

"From sea to rising sea, a remarkable number of the places where American history was made are already under threat. The geographic and cultural quilt that tells the American story is fraying at the edges — and even beginning to be pulled apart — by the impacts of climate change," the report said.

Related: How to save mummies from the Egyptian revolution

An extensive list of foes, including sea level rise, coastal erosion, increased flooding, heavy rains, and more frequent wildfires, were named as possible threats.

Sites like Jamestown, the first permanent English settlement in North America, Faneuil Hall, where Boston's Sons of Liberty planted the seeds of revolution, and Ellis and Liberty Islands, where millions of immigrants entered the US and which sustained $77 million in damages from Hurricane Sandy, are in jeopardy.

But the path forward is clear, according to UCS.

"Given the scale of the problem and the cultural value of the places at risk, it is not enough merely to plan for change and expect to adapt," says the group. "We must begin now to prepare our threatened landmarks to face worsening climate impacts; climate resilience must become a national priority. We must [reduce] the carbon emissions that cause climate change."

Follow Darren Ankrom on Twitter: @darrenankrom