King Tut - Tomb, Facts & Mummy - Biography
King Tutankhamun's famous death mask, photographed by Daniel Berehulak for Getty Images

When people think of mummies, their first thoughts are probably the complicated rituals of Ancient Egypt in preparation for the afterlife. What many people don’t realize is that mummification is not just about elaborate wrapping and preserving of the deceased, it is a natural phenomenon that has occurred all over the world, in many climates and environments. 

Mummy of Irtirutja with mask and other cartonnage elements, Human remains, linen, mummification materials, painted and gilded cartonnage
The Mummy of Irtirutja, from the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Mummification is the process in which a dead body is dried or embalmed for preservation. It can occur naturally, or be practiced on purpose. It is one of the most ancient forms of death ritual that we know of, and was practiced on nearly every continent either intentionally or unintentionally. It can happen in just about any climate, from bog, to ice, to desert.

In Europe, bodies pulled from raised peat bogs show remarkable levels of preservation, causing some to believe that the individuals discovered had been recently deceased, instead of having met their end thousands of years ago. Due to the low-oxygen, high acid content of the water, and low mineral content, the peat bogs cause the bodies to tan, but ultimately remain extremely well preserved. This could be considered a natural form of embalming. Some of the bodies found in these bogs predate King Tut, demonstrating the intricacies of nature, and a fascinating look into natural mummification. 

Tollund Man
The Tollund Man, as photographed by Christian Als

The oldest known mummies come from Chile, from a culture known as the Chinchorro people. While the Chinchorro people did prepare the bodies for the process of mummification to some degree, by removing organs, filling forms with reeds and sticks, and coating the deceased’s skin in clay and paint, the process of mummification was greatly helped by the environment, allowing for the bodies to preserved for over 9000 years. With dry air, high temperatures, and salinity from the nearby ocean, these bodies were preserved by a culture that had not even developed ceramics yet, due to the perfect mummification environment.

Chile has world's oldest mummies -- the Chinchorro people | CNN Travel
A Chinchorro mummy, featured in an article by Mark Johanson for CNN

One of the world’s most famous mummies is “Ötzi” or “the Iceman,” named for the location where he was found, in the ice of the Ötztal Alps between Austria and Italy. He was found in 1991, and presumed to have been murdered sometime around 3300 BCE. His remains were preserved by ice that surrounded his body shortly after death. His body has provided a fascinating forensic view into Copper Age European Society, with so much of his body having been preserved, down to the contents of his stomach. 

here's what ötzi the iceman ate before he was murdered | live science
Scientists investigating the contents of Ötzi's stomach, image by South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology\Eurac\M. Samadelli

Ancient Egyptians have the world’s most recognized history of mummification, with elaborate 70 day rituals that involved removal of internal organs, many prayers, application of natron salt for desiccation of the body, and wrapping of the body in linen. What many people don’t realize about this practice is that it was in response to climate and technology concerns. In my studies of Ancient Egypt with professor Dr. Peter Nulton, I was taught that the mummification ritual really started with the natural climate of the desert surrounding Ancient Egypt (also known as Kemet, or “Black Land'' in reference to the dark fertile soil surrounding the Nile River). By placing the deceased out in the sand, the dry climate naturally removed the moisture from the tissues, completely drying out the body. This caused Ancient Egyptians to believe that this was the desirable state of a deceased body. As their society advanced, and they were able to create more advanced tombs with improved technology, the implementation of stone tombs decreased the possibility of bodies being defiled by animals or weather. These advancements in tombs came at a cost. While they protected the remains more effectively, the stone trapped moisture, and prevented the bodies from going through natural mummification that the dry desert air caused. Egyptians noticed this, and developed the elaborate system of mummification to artificially get the same results as leaving bodies out in the dry air had done, in order to fulfill their idea of what the true state of a deceased person should look like. 

All of these examples are only a fraction of the mummification that has happened, and still happens on earth. Given the right environmental conditions, any body could become a mummy, ritual application or not. Crime scene investigators often discover victims of crime who have been mummified due to the way their body was disposed of. New mummies are being discovered all over the earth as part of ongoing archaeological research, from the Americas to Asia. Mummification is a fascinating natural occurrence that has been mythologized and ritualized to the point of its origins having been nearly forgotten.