A group of scientists from Harvard University revealed another devastating impact of climate change and this time, it involves the world's oldest mummies.
Researchers who examined the Chinchorro mummies in Chile have discovered that the preserved remains are under threat because of increased levels of moisture, citing that the humid air allows the bacteria to grow and cause the skin of the mummies to turn into black and become gelatinous.
The Chinchorros are a group of hunter-gatherers who developed an elaborate method of mummifying their dead at least 2,000 years before the Egyptians started to mummify their pharaohs.
After staying well preserved for about 7,000 years, many of the Chinchorro mummies started to degrade rapidly over the past decade. Experts in particular have noticed that the nearly 120 of these Chinchorro mummies housed in the University of Tarapacá's archaeological museum in Arica, Chile have degraded visibly at a fast rate, with some specimen turning into black ooze.
To find out the cause of the mummies' degradation, Ralph Mitchell from Harvard University and colleagues examined the rotting mummies and found that microbes were able to flourish in the increasingly humid climate, causing the preserved remains to turn into black ooze.
Further testing revealed that the elevated moisture in the air caused the damage to the mummies' skin. Archaeology professor Marcela Sepulveda from the University of Tarapacá said that the changing climate in Chile can be attributed as the cause behind the mummies disintegrating since they found that the skin started to fall apart after 21 days when these were placed in high humidity.
"The key word that we use a lot in microbiology is opportunism," Mitchell said. "With many diseases we encounter, the microbe is in our body to begin with, but when the environment changes it becomes an opportunist."
Mitchell said that unless the preserved remains are kept under the right temperature and humidity conditions, the microorganisms would leave a devastating impact on them.
Based on an analysis, the ideal humidity for the mummies housed in the museum would range between 40 and 60 percent. Any higher than this could result in degradation and lower than this could also have equally damaging effects since acidification may likely occur. Experts still have to conduct further testing, though, in order to determine the effects of light and temperature.
Mitchell said that the result of their investigation could help the staff of the museum fine-tune the light levels, humidity and temperature to preserve the mummies that are in their collection.