After 60 Year Delay, Scientists Identify World’s Oldest Mummy

A scientific breakthrough sat undeveloped on film for 60 years. Photographs taken in Portugal in the 1960s are of the oldest known mummy. But they were only recently found and studied. The find predates the previous record by 1,000 years and the oldest European mummy by 5,000 years. It suggests the hunter-gatherer populations placed a high significance on their burial sites, mummifying corpses to carry rather than burying them elsewhere.

Side by side comparison of a newly discovered photograph and the drawing made of a skeleton.
Photo by Manuel Farinha dos Santos. Cambridge University Press. Illustration by Dario de Sousa, National Museum of Archaeology, Lisbon.

Three rolls of film found in the belongings of archeologist Manuel Farinha dos Santos after his death in 2001 listed dig sites he visited in 1960 and 1962. The National Museum of Archaeology in Lisbon, Portugal, excavated those sites. The newly discovered photographs match up with the museum’s collection of drawings, some photographs, and a few of the skeletons preserved in paraffin.

While matching up the photos, scientists noticed some remarkable features about some of the skeletons. They were hyper-flexed, meaning the arms and legs are unnaturally close to the body. This suggests much of the body’s soft tissue was not present at the time of burial. Many of the smaller bones were also still in place. When buried naturally, bodies bloat and then decompose. This scatters bones surrounded by more soft tissue, like in the feet. Soil also fills in the gaps. Mummies, however, don’t usually show these patterns.

Photograph of a skeleton, its tight formation suggests the body was tied up and mummified prior to burial
Photo by Manuel Farinha dos Santos. Cambridge University Press.

The research also includes studies done with bodies donated to science. Results suggest that a body tightly bound or wrapped, desiccated, and then buried would look similar to those in the photographs. The peer-reviewed European Journal of Archaeology published the results, which we saw on Live Science

Top row shows the progression of buried body, bottom row a mummified body
Cambridge University Press

Remains at the dig sites have been radiocarbon dated to roughly 8,000 years ago. Hunter-gatherers lived in that region, but it’s not known if any populations settled. The researchers suggest bodies were trussed and mummified to make them easier to carry back to established burial grounds. In temperate Portugal, that could have required weeks of tightening the bindings and a fire nearby to dry the corpse. This suggests great care and attention versus simply burying the dead in their current location.

Progress of a trussed body through the mummification process.
Cambridge University Press

As technology advances, scientists have used DNA to recreate faces and CT scans to see behind shrouds of other mummies. Scientists can apply the information from this latest study in archeological finds throughout the world to determine mummification in less obvious cases. Even in sites excavated decades ago without complete investigations or records. This 8,000 year old find may not hold the record of oldest mummy for long.

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