Mummies may have been created in Egypt 1,500 years earlier than once believed, according to a new study.
Clothing remaining from humans who lived between 6,500 and 5,350 years ago in one Egyptian cemetery was examined by researchers. The scientists found many of the linens shrouding the bodies contained pine resins and other chemicals used to preserve the bodies. The recipe used in these early mummifications was nearly identical to the mixture used thirty centuries later, when the practice reached its peak.
However, the process by which preparations were carried out was not as advanced as it would be in later years. Previous research led to the belief that preservation of human remains from this time was carried out by natural drying processes, an idea now upended by the new finding.
Complex mummification procedures were thought to have been first developed around B.C.E. 2200, becoming more common two centuries later.
"The antibacterial properties of some of these ingredients and the localized soft-tissue preservation that they would have afforded lead us to conclude that these represent the very beginnings of experimentation that would evolve into the mummification practice of the Pharaonic period," Stephen Buckley from University of York, said.
Researchers from Macquarie University in Australia and the University of Oxford also participated in the investigation into the ancient mummies.
"Our investigations of these prehistoric funerary wrappings... have identified a pine resin, an aromatic plant extract, a plant gum/sugar, a natural petroleum source, and a plant oil/animal fat in... funerary wrappings," researchers wrote in an article announcing the results of their study.
Linens studied during the investigation included samples from Queen Hetepheres, the mother of Khufu, sponsor of the Great Pyramid at Giza.
"I was surprised that the prehistoric Egyptians, who lived in a tribal society 1,000 years before the invention of writing, were already in possession of the empirical science that would later become true mummification," Jana Jones, egyptologist at Macquarie University in Australia, said.
Ancient Egyptians believed that human bodies needed to be preserved in order for the soul to enter the afterlife. The practice peaked between 15 and 10 centuries before the start of the common era, and continued until the nation adopted Islam in C.E. 642.
Many of the ingredients needed for the compound had to be imported from distant lands, and were likely expensive. Pine resin used in the ancient recipe may have been imported from southeastern Turkey, several hundred miles distant from Egypt.
Investigation of early mummification processes in Egypt was detailed in the online journal Plos One.