A recent discovery by scientists at 8,000-year-old hunter-gatherer burial sites in Portugal’s Sado Valley shows that mummification has been around since the European Mesolithic.

The study used the method of archaeothanatology with human decomposition experiments. Archeotanatology is an approach used by archaeologists to document and analyze human remains at archaeological sites that combines observations of the spatial distribution of bones in graves with knowledge of how the human body decomposes after death. With this approach, archaeologists recreate a picture of what happens to a dead body during burial, even if several millennia have passed since its moment. In the course of the study, the results obtained with the help of archaeothanatology were supplemented with data from the Texas State University Forensic Anthropology Research Center on human decomposition experiments during mummification and burial.

As a result of the experiments, scientists were able to identify several common features of the mummies found in one of the burials: hyperflexion of the limbs, the absence of exarticulation in significant parts of the skeleton, and the rapid filling of deposits around the bones. The analysis showed that some of the bodies were buried in a bent position – their legs were bent at the knees and pulled to the chest.

As a rule, during the decomposition process, the bones disintegrate in the weakest places – for example, in the feet – but in this case, all the articulations of the bones were preserved. The researchers suggested that this pattern of hyperflexion and lack of exarticulation could be explained by the fact that the bodies were placed in the grave not as fresh corpses, but in a dried, mummified state. Dehydration, therefore, not only helps to maintain weak joints, but also allows the body to flex strongly, since the degree of flexion increases significantly when the soft tissue volume is smaller. Because the bodies were dried before burial, there was little to no sediment left between the bones, and the articulations are maintained by the constant filling of the surrounding soil, supporting the bones and preventing them from breaking down.

The researchers speculated that the observed patterns could be the result of a controlled natural mummification process. The manipulations with the body during mummification must have taken place over a long period of time – the body was gradually dehydrated, maintaining its bodily integrity, and at the same time taking the desired shape due to tying with a rope or bandages. When the process was completed, the body, being much more compact and lighter than a fresh corpse, was easier to transport and retained its appearance and anatomical integrity.

If the hypothesis that the history of mummification in Europe is actually older than previously known is confirmed, scientists will open up a whole avenue for research into the funerary practices of Mesolithic communities. These practices also shed light on the significance of burial sites and the importance of burial culture in Mesolithic Portugal 8,000 years ago.