‘mummies’ have been found in a Portuguese cemetery, dating from about 8,000 years ago.

We knew that the Egyptians mummified their dead. But ancient Europeans also mummified the bodies of their dead. That actually happened about 8,000 years ago, new research shows. And that means that mummification of the deceased was probably more common in history than previously thought.

More about mummification
A mummy is a remains in which the decomposition process has almost come to a halt after death, so that not only the skeleton of the body is left, but also the soft parts. The oldest mummies recovered (which have been intentionally mummified) are the chinchorro mummies; mummified remains of individuals from the South American Chinchorro culture, found in what is now northern Chile. The mummified bodies are about 7,000 years old. The earliest mummy discovered in Egypt dates back to around 3000 BC.

In the new study, the researchers traveled to an ancient hunter-gatherer burial ground in Portugal’s Sado Valley. The skeletal remains of thirteen people were excavated here in the 1960s. Thanks to newly created photographs, the researchers were able to reconstruct the positions in which the deceased had been laid to rest, providing a unique opportunity to learn more about the burial rites of 8,000 years ago.

Spatial distribution

The researchers studied the spatial distribution of the bones in the grave and combined this information with knowledge about how the human body normally disintegrates after death. In this way, archaeologists can reconstruct how the deceased was treated and buried after death, even if several millennia have already passed.

Researcher Rita Peyroteo Stjerna examines one of the Mesolithic skeletons unearthed in the 1960s in Portugal’s Sado Valley. Image: Jose Paulo Ruas

Mummified corpse

It leads to a striking discovery. Analysis shows that some bodies were buried in extremely flexed positions with the legs and knees pulled up so far that they lay in front of the chest. In addition, during the decomposition of the human body, the bones at weak joints, such as the feet, normally fall apart. But in the cases studied, the joints were preserved. According to the researchers, this could be explained by the fact that the bodies were not immediately placed in the grave. They may have been laid to rest in a desiccated state, as a mummified corpse.


It means the bodies may have been dried first. Dehydration doesn’t just hold some of the otherwise weak body parts together; it also makes the body more flexible. The range of motion increases with less soft tissue. The researchers therefore suggest that their observations may be the result of a “guided, natural mummification process.” In addition, when the process was completed, the body was easier to transport (it would have been significantly lighter than a fresh corpse, for example). In addition, the person was buried in this way while preserving his or her appearance and anatomical integrity.

All in all, the study shows that bodies were mummified about 8,000 years ago in Europe. And that means that Europeans did that much earlier than thought. The study therefore provides new insight into the funeral rites of Mesolithic communities. For example, they probably felt it was important to treat the body of a deceased person with care and to lay it to rest in a way that preserved and protected the body, according to principles that were culturally regulated.