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Skyrocketing Humidity Threatens World’s Oldest Mummies

posted: 03/11/15
by: Discovery.com Staff
Chinchorro mummy
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A complete Chinchorro mummy on display at the University of Tarapacá.
Vivien Standen

Even though they're already dead, the world's oldest mummies are in grave danger. Almost 120 mummies at the University of Tarapaca's archaeological museum in Chile are decomposing faster than ever.

The Chinchorro mummies are radiocarbon-dated back to 5050 BC, making them the world's oldest known man-made mummies.

Upon investigation, a group of Harvard scientists, led by Dr. Ralph Mitchell, discovered that small, flesh-eating microbes are flourishing thanks to increased humidity attributed to climate change.

Egyptian mummies have a major preservation advantage over the Chinchorros: Africa's bone-dry desert climate generally prevents such microbes from growing in large numbers. In humid Chile, however, the mummies are degrading into a black, sludge-like substance at an alarming rate.

Archaeologists from Tarapaca are working with the Harvard group to optimize humidity, light and temperature conditions within museum facilities to prevent further decomposition.

Mitchell, however, remains concerned about the mummies that have yet to be discovered.

"What about all of the artifacts out in the field?" he asks. "How do you preserve them outside the museum? Is there a scientific answer to protect these important historic objects from the devastating effects of climate change?"

Click here to read Harvard's news release.

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