On the 3rd January 1924 Howard Carter discovered the tomb of the young Pharaoh, Tutankhamen. Whilst the most well-known mummies are those discovered in Egypt, however, they aren’t the only ones in existence, as many civilisations across the globe have been found to preserve bodies in the same way. Indeed, although many mummies were artificially mummified, mummification can occur by accident in environments where a dry climate with extreme temperatures causes it to happen naturally. With this in mind, let’s take a look at some of the most interesting mummy discoveries outside of Egypt.
Discovered in a few Buddhist temples in northern Japan, Sokushinbutsu, or living mummies, were Buddhist monks who undertook the challenge of mummifying themselves in the quest for nirvana, the final goal of Buddhism. The process was incredibly long and gruelling, consisting of three distinct steps. Step one involved eating nothing but nuts and seeds for 1,000 days whilst engaging in a rigorous exercise regime to rid the body of fat. During step two, which lasted another 1,000 days, monks would eat only bark and roots in gradually decreasing amounts whilst drinking a tea made from the poisonous sap of the urushi tree, turning the body into a hostile environment where bacteria could not survive, allowing any flesh that remained to be preserved. After this, during the third step of the process, the monk would climb into an underground tomb with nothing but a bamboo pipe for air and a bell to ring to let others know that they were still alive. Here the monk would meditate until they died – made apparent by the absence of the sound of the bell. After another 1,000 days the monk was dug up, cleaned and, if the body was sufficiently preserved, declared a living mummy. Only a very small number of the monks who attempted self-mummification were successful and the process was outlawed by the Japanese government in the late 19th century.
When part of the cemetery of San Sebastian in Guanajuato, Mexico, was dug up in 1853, a discovery of over 100 mummies was found. The region’s dry air and high temperatures, together with the sulphur and mineral rich soil, prompted a natural mummification process of the bodies that had been buried in surface-level crypts there. The mummies were put on display at the Museo de las Momias de Guanajuato, where they can still be found today.
The 500-year-old mummified body of a 6-month-old boy was discovered at the settlement of Qilakitsoq in West Greenland in 1972. It is thought that the boy was buried alive with his mother, who had already passed away, as there was nobody left to care for him. The mummified baby and his mother were found alongside another young boy and four women of varying ages – it is believed that the group were a family consisting of three sisters and their children as it was custom amongst Inuits from this region to be buried with their children so that they might enter the afterlife together. The family are the oldest preserved remains to ever have been found in the area and it’s likely that the extreme cold and dry air caused the natural mummification of this Inuit family.