Scientists Say: Mummy | Science News for Students

Scientists Say: Mummy

This is a person or animal that has been preserved after death
Sep 23, 2019 — 6:30 am EST
a photo of a mummy in a cemetery in the Nazca desert, Peru

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.

Check out the full list of Scientists Say.

Power Words

(more about Power Words)

acidic     An adjective for materials that contain acid. These materials often are capable of eating away at some minerals such as carbonate, or preventing their formation in the first place.

bacteria     (singular: bacterium) Single-celled organisms. These dwell nearly everywhere on Earth, from the bottom of the sea to inside other living organisms (such as plants and animals). Bacteria are one of the three domains of life on Earth.

bog     A type of wetland that forms peat from the accumulation of dead plant material — often mosses.

chemical     A substance formed from two or more atoms that unite (bond) in a fixed proportion and structure. For example, water is a chemical made when two hydrogen atoms bond to one oxygen atom. Its chemical formula is H2O. Chemical also can be an adjective to describe properties of materials that are the result of various reactions between different compounds.

chemistry     The field of science that deals with the composition, structure and properties of substances and how they interact. Scientists use this knowledge to study unfamiliar substances, to reproduce large quantities of useful substances or to design and create new and useful substances. (about compounds) Chemistry also is used as a term to refer to the recipe of a compound, the way it’s produced or some of its properties. People who work in this field are known as chemists.

continent     (in geology) The huge land masses that sit upon tectonic plates. In modern times, there are six established geologic continents: North America, South America, Eurasia, Africa, Australia and Antarctica. In 2017, scientists also made the case for yet another: Zealandia.

corpse     The body of a dead human. Also sometimes used to describe the remains of some inanimate object (such as a star).

culture    (n. in social science) The sum total of typical behaviors and social practices of a related group of people (such as a tribe or nation). Their culture includes their beliefs, values and the symbols that they accept and/or use. Culture is passed on from generation to generation through learning. Scientists once thought culture to be exclusive to humans. Now they recognize some other animals show signs of culture as well, including dolphins and primates.

decay     The process (also called “rotting”) by which a dead plant or animal gradually breaks down as it is consumed by bacteria and other microbes. 

enzymes     Molecules made by living things to speed up chemical reactions.

mummy     A body preserved by natural processes or human technology, with some skin and organs remaining.

organ     (in biology) Various parts of an organism that perform one or more particular functions. For instance, an ovary is an organ that makes eggs, the brain is an organ that makes sense of nerve signals and a plant’s roots are organs that take in nutrients and moisture.

oxygen     A gas that makes up about 21 percent of Earth's atmosphere. All animals and many microorganisms need oxygen to fuel their growth (and metabolism).

tissue     Made of cells, it is any of the distinct types of materials that make up animals, plants or fungi. Cells within a tissue work as a unit to perform a particular function in living organisms. Different organs of the human body, for instance, often are made from many different types of tissues.