What is the oldest mummy in the world and when does it date back?

Mummified human remains are present on all continents, dating back to practically all eras of human history. But among the mummies known to date, which is the oldest of all? First of all, a distinction must be made between mummified human remains natural and those treated instead artificially. In both cases however, the record of antiquity is found in American continent. The oldest natural mummy in the world is the Spirit Cave Mummyfound in United Statesfrom 9400 years ago, while the oldest artificial mummies are the Chinchorro mummiesfound in Chile, and date back to about 7000 years ago. Another very ancient natural mummy found in Italian glaciers is that of Ötzi.

The Spirit Cave Mummy (Nevada, 9400 years ago)

The Spirit Cave Mummy was found by chance in 1940 come on Mr and Mrs Wheeler inside a cave near Fallonin the state of Nevada, in the southwestern United States. The two were a couple of archaeologists commissioned by the state of Nevada to carry out inspections inside the caves in the area to ensure that there were no archaeological remains that could be damaged by any mining activities.

The Wheelers noticed inside the cave gods human remains wrapped in a mat made with marsh reeds. It was about two individuals, whose remains were mostly in a skeletal state, except for the head and shoulder of one of the two. The discovery was immediately sensational: the aridity of the cave had allowed some soft tissues to be preserved, but not only that: the partially mummified individual, male, had been deposited with some objects made of perishable material which had instead been preserved, such as some moccasins made of animal skin and a rabbit fur blanket.

otzi ice man mummy similaun

Initially the two individuals found inside the Grotta dello Spirito were dated between 2000 and 1500 years ago. However, the new dating methods developed in recent years, such as the radiocarbon (C-14). In the 1996 thanks to this method (the samples used were hair and bone tissue), the mummy was well dated 9400 years ago (7420 BC).

In the 2016DNA analysis demonstrated that the genetic heritage of the individual was compatible with that of current Native Americans, marking the end of a dispute which had been going on for years regarding theethnic background of the mummy. Once he concluded scientific analyses, the human remains were returned to the tribe Paiute-Shoshonethe group of Native Americans native to the area, who proceeded to bury them again according to their own customs, in compliance with the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Acta United States federal law for the protection and preservation of human remains and burial grounds on Native American reservations.

The Chinchorro Mummies (Chile, 7000 years ago)

The Chinchorro mummies are the oldest artificial mummies in the world. They are an expression of the Chinchorro culture, widespread on the coast between the Northern Chile and the Southern Peru between 7000 and 1500 BC The oldest known mummies of this fishing population date back to well 7000 years ago (5000 BC), and therefore they are older than two millennia compared to the more famous Egyptian mummies. The Chinchorro Mummies are considered a world heritage site by UNESCO.

Unlike the Ancient Egyptians, however, who practiced embalming only for the wealthiest members of society, the Chinchorro they mummified all their deadhighlighting the existence of a rather egalitarian society in death. The Chinchorro mummification technique combined an artificial process with favorable conservation conditions thanks to the arid climate of their territory. Over the course of its very long history, this South American population has developed three types of embalming different: let’s look at them from the oldest to the most recent.

The most technique ancient is what is known as “black mummies“, so called because of the color that the treated bodies took on, used between the 5000 and 3000 BC The body was initially dismembered, separating the head and limbs from the trunk. The skin was set aside. In this manner, all soft tissue was removed from the bones, with the skin and skeleton allowed to dry. After this first phase, the skeleton was reassembled and covered with a mixture composed of ash and clay above all, but also of animal hair (the use of sea lion skins is attested). The purpose of this layer was to be modeled to recall the features of the deceased in life. After this mixture had dried, the dried skin was placed on the clay layer, along with a wig of human hats. Finally the skin was painted black with a manganese-based substance.


The second technique is called “red mummies“, in use during 3rd millennium BC, and therefore contemporary with the Egyptian practice of embalming. To create a mummy with this technique, the body of the deceased was not dismembered, but in a manner similar to the Egyptians, cuts were made to remove all the internal organs. The only part of the body that was removed was the head, to facilitate the extraction of the brain. Also in this case the skin was removed. At this point, the inside of the body was dried. Once the dehydration process was completed, during which the body had reduced in volume, the inside of the deceased was stuffed with clay and twigs, to return to its original dimensions. The bones were held in place with the help of wooden splints. At this point the skin was reapplied, along with the head and a wig. The entire mummy was then painted with red ocher, except the head.

The last technique, the most recent, is known as “mud“, and you date between the 3rd millennium and the middle of the 2nd millennium BC In this case, the body of the deceased was not affected. To preserve them, the remains were wrapped in a thick layer of clay and plaster, also with the help of natural binders such as egg white or glues based on gelatine of animal origin. Also in this case, before the mixture dried, the clay was shaped to remember the features of the deceased.