Mummification: A Worldwide Phenomenon

Egyptians are famous for the practice of mummification, and they rightfully should be.  Their embalming techniques have preserved their dead for thousands of years, allowing for extensive research to be done on their post-mortem culture.   Mummification, though, was not strictly an Egyptian tradition.  Several other cultures around the world have shown evidence of ritualistic embalming as well.

Most recently, a 200 year old Buddhist monk was discovered in Mongolia, still sitting in the meditative lotus position.  According to BBC News, the monk was found just before he was about to be sold on the black market.  It is assumed that the cold Mongolian weather allowed for such magnificent preservation.  Several Buddhist authorities argue that this monk is not dead, but in a meditative state known as “tukdam,” and could remain this way for a much greater amount of time.   This monk is not the first of his kind though.  Monks seeking to achieve the level of a Buddha often choose to be buried in this state.  Their followers are instructed to dig them up after a certain amount of time.

On the other side of the world, Incans were preserving their dead as well.  As stated on, the Incan people had a practice of mummifying certain members of their society atop frigid mountains.  Sealed in “ice chambers,” the remains of these people would be amazingly preserved.  In 1999, three mummified children were discovered in Argentina.  They appear to be part of some sort of ritual sacrifice which was centered around one individual known as “The Maiden.”  In 2007, hair samples were taken to gain insight about the participants’ diets, and it was found that all three children were heavily drugged to make them more compliant.  The purpose of this sacrifice is still unknown, and the selection of these children remains unclear to researchers.

Though these techniques were different from Egyptian mummification, their end goal was the same: to preserve their deads’ physical remains for as long as possible.  Whether it was to appease an angry god, travel to the afterlife, or achieve nirvana, these people felt that the bodies of their loved ones needed to be preserved for all eternity.  In a way, don’t we still “mummify” our dead?  The embalming fluid we inject into corpses is meant to slow decay, thus preserving the body.  Why do we do this?  It’s not like we’re ever going to see them again.  After all, they are six feet underground.  Perhaps we still have a sense of attachment to the physical manifestation of the human spirit.  Maybe we still vaguely believe, just as the Egyptians did, that their bodies still have a purpose after death.

One thought on “Mummification: A Worldwide Phenomenon

  1. I found it interesting to learn about other ancient cultures and their preservation methods for their dead. Although I had read about the recent discovery of the monk in the news, and there have been other stories reported about bodies that have been found very well preserved, it seems like the discovery is treated as an accidental preservation. Nobody mentions that preservation could have been a part of another culture’s tradition. Today everyone knows that the Egyptians mummified and preserved their dead, but other cultures are not considered.

    I find it odd that even though other cultures’ artifacts and structured are widely known, but despite multiple civilizations using preservation methods on their dead only the Egyptians are widely known for that practice. Additionally, experts seem to know enough about ancient Egyptian religious practices to understand why the Egyptians preserved their dead as mummies. However, with the Buddhist and South American cultures, there seems to be a lot less understanding and general awareness about their religious practices and why they chose to preserve their dead.

    Whatever the reasons for the Egyptians being the most widely known for their mummification traditions are, it can definitely be seen in the popular culture throughout the ages. Books, movies, and television have all capitalized on the intrigue people have with how the Egyptians buried their dead. However, reading about how three children were drugged and sacrificed in Argentina it seems odd that people aren’t equally interested in other cultures’ rituals. Whatever the reasons ancient cultures had to preserve their dead, the desires seemed to be universal. Despite the traditions being widespread, the public’s general knowledge is limited to the Egyptians. This is unfortunate, because after reading about a couple cases from other ancient civilizations, it definitely seems worthwhile to explore the death practices of other cultures as well.

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