The image is frightening: the mummified remains of a woman, crouched in a fetal position — Her arms folded up with her outstretched hands apparently protecting her face, which has the look of fear etched deeply upon it. A fear that reflects the impending doom of someone whose life is coming to an abrupt end.
The photo made headlines in Newspapers all across Europe from England’s Evening Standard to Italy’s La Repubblica.
The mummy was recently discovered in the Chacapoyas region of the Amazon in northern Peru. The area is taken from the tribe of the same name: a white-skinned tribe known as the “Cloud People” who inhabited the cloud forests and ruled the region from around 800 AD to about 1475, when they were conquered by the Incas.
The mummy was discovered in a small cave along with that of a small baby in addition to an assortment of ceramic shards and fabric and other ceremonial objects.
The photo of the mummy has divided archeologists into two camps: one group who feels the mummy was “caught in the act” — literally dying with the look of fright on its face. And the other — with a certainly less prosaic attitude — which feels that the appearance of the mummy can be explained by a death of natural causes.
An article in the Italian daily Corriere Della Sera (12 January 2007) quotes an archeologist (who chose to remain anonymous) as saying that “…the mummy’s look can be attributed to dehydration. That the passage of time pulled the skin away from the lips and jaw thus creating the “screaming in terror” look…” that make the headlines so interesting.
According to www.search.tribe.net the Chachpoya do seem to be a unique civilization in that they tied their mummies into a fetal position, deliberately placing the hands on the face. They apparently removed the internal organs first, and then wrapped the dead into tight fetally-folded bundles. The site goes on to say that in fact, most mummies in Peru are buried “naturally” with their internal organs still in place, but the majority of those belonging to the Chachapoya, had been eviscerated and prepared with cotton padding in facial cavities and, possibly, the application of preserving substances to the skin.
The question remains then — what happened in this instance? Was this woman scared to death? Caught in the act right before her life came to an abrupt end? We may never know for sure. But conjecture and our own fears and imagination make for an interesting discussion.
And an interesting side note: The article in Corriere Della Sera points outthat Edvard Munch’s famous painting THE SCREAM (also known as The Cry) may have been inspired by the artist’s viewing of a Chachapoyas mummy on display at the 1889 Exposition Universelle in Paris. Just a coincidence? Munch sees a Chachapoyas mummy in Paris in 1889, and a few years later paints THE SCREAM. Considering the time frame, that would mean that the mummy Edvard Munch saw in 1889 was also scared out of it’s wits as well.
We may never know the true story about that either.