New research co-authored by two SFI External Professors posits that ritual mummification and other complex cultural innovations that arose some 7,000 years ago in hunter-gatherer societies in the Atacama Desert might have been prompted by a regional population increase driven by favorable environmental changes.
The ancient Chinchorro people who lived in bands along the dry Atacama coastline (in modern-day Chile and Peru) began mummifying their dead around 5000 BC -- the oldest known deliberately mummified remains.
The research team, including SFI External Professors Michael Hochberg and Pablo Marquet, examined evidence in the climate records for conditions in the region and noted a period of greater rainfall across the Andes between 5800 and 4700 BC. These conditions, they say, would have made water readily available in the creeks and springs of the normally dry Atacama coastline below.
Their model suggests these favorable living conditions likely led to an increase in the region's population, which would have put living humans in frequent contact with human corpses naturally mummified in the arid conditions. This, in turn, led to the emergence of ritualistic funerary practices, they suggest.
Rituals such as mummification and innovations such as improved fishing tools are among the indicators of an increase in social and cultural complexity that arose in the area at the time. The work builds on a theory that population increases drive technological innovation.
“Environmental change acted as a positive and creative force in the building up of social complexity, instead of being associated with the collapse of society, as is usually emphasized,” says Marquet in an August 14 article in Nature.
Read the paper in PNAS (August 13, 2012, subscription required)
Read the article in Nature (August 13, 2012)
Read the article in Science (August 13, 2012)
Audio: Listen to the National Public Radio interview (August 15, 2012)
Audio: Listen to the Public Radio International report (August 14, 2012)
Read the article in Science News (August 14, 2012)
Read the article in Discover magazine (August 13, 2012)
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