The Rio Camarones valley and the Atacama Desert,

Climate change has been at the forefront of the world’s agenda for decades, but had you ever considered how it could be affecting archaeology?

Last week you may have seen a story concerning the disintegration of over 120 of Chile’s Chinchorro mummies. These 7,000 year old mummies (the oldest man-made mummies to have been discovered) have been decaying at an alarming rate over the past decade.

Changes in air humidity are providing the perfect conditions for bacteria growth, and have resulted in the mummies’ skin going “black and becoming gelatinous” – the mummies are quite literally dissolving.

A ‘bacteria buffet’

Chinchorro-mummy-Chile

The University of Tarapaca’s archaeology museum in Arica, which houses the mummies, called in experts from Harvard University to help study the bacteria on the skin surface. They found that the bacteria was the same as that found on living human skin, which had taken the opportunity in the heightened humidity to feast upon these mummies too.

[Read more: Melting Glaciers Reveal Soldiers’ Corpses]

The team from Harvard went on to run controlled experiments, adjusting the humidity from damp to dry, to see how it would affect the skin. The results showed that a high humidity caused the skin to fall apart in just 21 days.

Climate change to blame?  

Chinchorro-mummy-Chile1

Located close to the Atacama Desert, Arica has traditionally had an arid climate, perfect for mummification. Recently though, fog has begun rolling in from the Pacific, increasing moisture in the air and causing the mummies to disintegrate.

And these mummies aren’t the only victims of climate change. From the loss of archaeological sites through coastal erosion, to retreating glaciers exposing preserved remains to decay, climate change poses a serious threat to archaeology worldwide.

[Read more: Global Warming’s Double-Edged Sword]

The story of the ‘melting’ mummies sadly reflects a wider issue that is steadily growing in severity: climate change threatens not just our future, but also our past.

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Rosanna Ring

Rosanna is one of DigVentures' intrepid Community Archaeologists. She's busy turning Barrowed Time (our dig at Morecambe's Bronze Age burial mound) into a real seaside adventure, and getting the Pop-Up Museum on the Prom ready for you to visit!

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