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Climate Change Turning Chilean Mummies into Black Ooze

Mar 10, 2015 03:48 PM EDT
Chilean mummy

(Photo : Vivien Standen)

Climate change has been linked to all sorts of phenomena, including sea level rise, ocean acidification and extreme drought, but now a bizarre new study shows that it is also turning Chilean mummies into a black ooze.

At least 2,000 years before the ancient Egyptians began mummifying their pharaohs, a hunter-gatherer people called the Chinchorro living along the coast of modern-day Chile and Peru developed their own elaborate methods for mummifying community members. This practice was not just reserved for elites, but for all men, woman and children, and even unborn fetuses in some cases.

However, after remaining well preserved for thousands of years, rising global temperatures due to climate change are threatening to destroy nearly 120 Chinchorro mummies at the University of Tarapacá's archeological museum in Arica, Chile - the world's oldest human-made mummies, dating as far back as 5050 BC.

"In the last ten years, the process has accelerated," Marcela Sepulveda, a professor of archaeology at the University of Tarapacá, said in a statement. "It is very important to get more information about what's causing this and to get the university and national government to do what's necessary to preserve the Chinchorro mummies for the future."

So how exactly are these cultural artifacts turning into a black gooey mess? According to researchers, after analyzing both degrading skin and undamaged skin from the museum's mummies, they found that the phenomenon can be blamed on certain microbes.

At the end of the mummification process, the Chinchorro would slather the mummy with a paste, the color of which ranged from black to red to brown over the course of the more than 3,000 years of Chinchorro mummy-making. It seems that as temperatures rise, air humidity consequentially increases and this elevated moisture causes the microbes to eat away at the mummy's skin.

"The key word that we use a lot in microbiology is opportunism," said researcher Ralph Mitchell from Harvard University. "With many diseases we encounter, the microbe is in our body to begin with, but when the environment changes it becomes an opportunist."

According to the researchers, the ideal humidity range for mummies kept in the museum is between 40 and 60 percent. Any higher and degradation could occur; any lower and equally damaging acidification was likely.

The results will hopefully help scientists learn how to better preserve the mummies in the museum, but for the hundreds supposedly still buried under the ground in Chile, whether or not they can be saved remains to be seen.

For more great nature science stories and general news, please visit our sister site, Headlines and Global News (HNGN).

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