Egypt: Mummification is older than expected

Dead people were already embalmed in the Neolithic Age according to the same recipe as later the Pharaohs

Tissue from a Mummy grave in Mostagedda from the Neolithic © Ron Oldfield and Jana Jones
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The art of mummification in Egypt is 1, 500 years older than previously thought. Even in the Neolithic period, deaths were embalmed with a complex tincture, as chemical analyzes of resin residues on Upper-Egyptian mummies show. Even at that time, the recipe of these tinctures resembled what was later used by the pharaohs, as researchers report in the journal "PLOS ONE".

One of the oldest known tombs in Egypt is located in Mostagedda in Upper Egypt. In this arid desert region, between 4500 and 3350 BC, people buried their dead in simple oval pits covered by wooden slats or stones. The bodies were already wrapped in linen bandages and accompanied by grave goods. Excavations show that the dead were not decayed, but preserved as dried mummies.

Enigmatic resin remains

"So far, however, it was assumed that the bodies were naturally mummified by the dry, hot desert climate, " explain Jana Jones from Macquarie University in Sydney and her colleagues. For, as is generally believed, the Egyptians did not begin to embalm their dead until 2200 BC. However, the researchers made it suspicious that some of the linen remnants on the Mostagedda mummies seemed to have been impregnated with a resin-like substance - similar to the usual embalming of the Egyptians.

In order to find out what these substances were and whether they might represent the remains of a targeted preparation of the dead, the researchers examined more than 50 samples of textiles from the early graves of this region. Microscopic analysis confirmed that most of the linen remnants were actually stuck to a rubbery substance. To determine their exact composition, the scientists analyzed the samples using various gas chromatography methods.

View into a Neolithic tomb in the Upper Egyptian Mostagedda. This skeleton was discovered as early as 1937. G. Brunton

Complex mixture

As it turned out, the mysterious substance was not a simple resin but a complex mixture of various ingredients. According to the researchers, this is a clear indication that this mixture was deliberately applied and the embalming served. "The recipe consists of a vegetable oil or animal fat base, combined with lower levels of tree resin, wax, an aromatic plant extract and a vegetable, rubber-like sticking sugar, " Jones and her colleagues report. display

In its composition and in the proportions of its constituents, this substance thus almost exactly resembles the tincture that was used thousands of years later for embalming the mummies of the pharaohs. The researchers came up with further parallels: some ingredients of the tincture had been pretreated, extracted, boiled or otherwise altered before being added.

Close-up of flax fabric impregnated with embalming tincture Ron Oldfield and Jana Jones

Same recipe as the pharaohs

In addition, the substance residues contained ingredients that counteracted decay of the corpses. "This resin-like mixture with which the prehistoric linen was impregnated contained antibacterial substances in the same proportions as were used by the Egyptian embalmers between 2500 and 3000 years later "Says senior author Stephen Buckley of the University of York.

According to the researchers, these results only allow one conclusion: The history of Egyptian mummification is much older than previously thought. Already in the Late Neolithic and in the Copper Age, the people of this region began to produce complex mixtures in order to preserve their dead. "This shifts the origins of this central facet of ancient Egyptian culture back into the past by about 1, 500 years, " say Jones and her colleagues. The practice of embalming the dead existed long before the first pharaohs were born in Egypt. (PLOS ONE, 2014; doi: 10.1371 / journal.pone.0103608)

(University of York / PLOS, 14.08.2014 - NPO)