Many cultures practiced mummification, or preservation of a dead body. Other civilizations have produced mummies -- some even before the Egyptians. Research shows many Incas brought their dead to high mountains in Peru, where the dryness and cold preserved the bodies. The body of the Chinese aristocrat Lady Cheng, more than 2,000 years old, was preserved by immersion in an embalming fluid that has made her the best-preserved ancient mummy known to modern science. In northern Chile, 2,000 years before Egyptians practiced mummification, the mummies of the Chinchorro people were preserved and kept in households like statues to remember the dead for a period of time before burial.
The first mummies were preserved as early as 5600 B.C. in Chile, where an outer layer of clay was added to the bodies. Mummification in ancient Egypt began around 4000 B.C., and peaked between the16th and 10th centuries B.C. The most elaborate forms of mummification were limited to influential people such as the pharaohs. Other cultures that practiced mummification include the ancient Guanches of the Canary Islands, the ancient Ethiopians and the ancient Incas of the Andes Mountains. The practice also has been discovered among primitive African people and on the Aleutian Islands.
One of the most interesting findings among all of the ancient practices for burying, preserving and honoring the dead is how ancients took advantage of what Mother Nature handed them. The Chinchorro people built their mummification process around their dry, desert climate. A British archaeologist discovered Bronze Age mummies in a remote Scottish isle that had likely been preserved using acids that occur naturally in the island's peat bogs [source: CNN]. The skin remained -- in a leathery state -- but the bones had almost completely eroded because of the acidic chemicals.
Even though other cultures around the world also were mummifying their dead, the ancient Egyptians mastered the art. And although "mummy" probably comes from an Arabic word meaning bitumen (a type of asphalt), the Egyptians didn't use bitumen in their mummification process.
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