Scientists Say: Mummy

This is a person or animal that has been preserved after death

Preserved bodies called “mummies” have been unearthed all over the world, from Asia to Australia. This mummy was found in South America in what is now the country of Peru.

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Mummy (noun, “MUMM-ee”)

This word describes a body whose tissue has been preserved after death. Normally when a person or animal dies, chemicals called enzymes start to eat away at tissue. And bacteria also start to munch away, breaking down muscles, organs, bones and more. In short, the body rots.

But corpses can be preserved so that a body decays slowly or hardly at all. This process can happen naturally under some conditions. Scientists have pulled mummies from under ice where cold temperatures slow decay. Mummies have also been found in deserts, where the heat dries out buried bodies. And in bogs, highly acidic water, low oxygen and low temperatures combine to create mummies, called “bog bodies.” The process that makes a mummy is called “mummification.”

The most famous mummies are from ancient Egypt. People there learned to preserve bodies by removing internal organs, adding chemicals that dried bodies out and wrapping the bodies in cloth strips. Ancient Egyptians even mummified animals, including many cats.

Other cultures mummified their dead, including the Chinchorro people. They lived in what is now northern Chile in South America. They started making mummies in 5000 B.C. Much later on the continent, the Inca people mummified dead people. And mummies have also been found in China, Australia and parts of Europe. Mummification isn’t just ancient history, though. There are a few famous mummies of people that died in the 20th century.

In a sentence

DNA from ancient Egyptian mummies hints that they had distant relatives that lived the Middle East and Europe.

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Carolyn Wilke is a former staff writer at Science News for Students. She has a Ph.D. in environmental engineering. Carolyn enjoys writing about chemistry, microbes and the environment. She also loves playing with her cat.

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