Apr 20, 2018 | Updated: 09:54 AM EDT

Climate Change Degrading Ancient Mummies

Mar 10, 2015 10:44 PM EDT

About 7 thousands years ago and predating the Egyptians by several thousands of years lived a tribe of people off the coast of Chile and southern Peru lived a tribe of people known today as "the Chinchorro".  Like the ancient Egyptians, the Chinchorro used to mummify its dead, creating the oldest known mummies on Earth.  But today, these mummies are now threatened by climate change.

Since 1917, hundreds of mummies have been discovered and researchers believe hundreds more are still wait to be found.  However, researchers have begun to encounter a problem when finding these mummies.  After unearthing, the mummies held at the museum of the Universidad de Tarapacá in Arica, Chile, have begun to degrade and scientists believe this is due to climate change.

Africa is regarded as the driest place on Earth.  However, lately experts have noticed an increase in precipitation and humidity.  Christopher Burt, a weather historian, wrote in 2013 that, despite Africa's infamous reputation for extreme dryness, official weather records from 1971 to 2000 suggest increasing wetter conditions.

Ralph Mitchel, a Harvard microbiologist who joined Chilean researchers noticed that many of the mummies uncovered in the 1980s were perfectly preserved until 10 years ago, when the deterioration process began to accelerate.

"In the last 10 years, the process has accelerated," Marcela Sepulveda, an archaeology professor at the University of Tarapacá, tells Harvard.

The initial hypothesis was that the increase of airborne moisture had allowed bacteria to start to attack the ancient mummies speeding up the deterioration process.  Mitchell's conclusion was that certain bacterial "opportunists" were enabled by more humid environmental conditions. 

Besides helping the mummies in Africa, Mitchell has been involved with the preservation of another possible climate change victim:  the outdoor marble sanctuary.  He noticed that increased precipitation is harmful to many historic marbles that are located in outdoor environments.

The plight of the Chinchorro mummies is just another example of the vulnerability of such irreplaceable cultural artifacts.  While it may or may not be the result of human caused climate change, UNESCO World Heritage Center has already raised the alarm.

Even if we don't know for sure as of yet if these changes are reactions to human-caused global warming, the reality remains that some historical artifacts and world heritage sites are in danger due to climate change in general.  If we do not find a way to preserve these pieces of history from the changes in the climate they could end up lost to us forever.

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