National Geographic: Ancient Graves: Voices of the Dead


Ashes to ashes.

Dust to dust.

Death always gets the final word -

no matter how we mock it.

Sworn to eternal silence,

the Dead seem beyond our reach.

Yet to some scientists,

they speak volumes.

"When I look at a mummy,

I'm looking at an encyclopedia."

Through the lens of modern science,

the grave has become

a window on the past.

Today we can learn intimate details

about how the Ancients lived-

and how they died.

"...that's really, that's, that's

really a common way that they did it -

the strangulation

or blows to the head..."

Bit by bit, their portraits emerge

from flesh, bone, and DNA.

"Bringing the people back to life,

I think that that's the fun part of it."

The unearthing of the past reveals

the tangled roots of our family tree.

But some see only the desecration

of their ancestors.

"They must be put back into

the bosom of sacred Mother Earth."

As the Living defend the Dead,

battle lines are drawn.

In truth, those who passed here

long ago still dwell among us.

From fragile remains,

their life stories unfold.

And as we hear them,

they become a part of us all.

Listen now to the voices

of the Dead.

This is the driest place on earth:

the Atacama Desert in Chile.

Life has found a foothold here:

not in the blazing sands,

but in the slender river valleys

that stretch across the desert

from the Andes to the sea.

The city of Arica stands where

two rivers meet the Pacific Ocean.

Countless generations of fishermen

have thrived here,

and many families have deep roots.

Whenever ground is broken,

there's a good chance

these roots may come to light.

The city's arid soil has yielded

several ancient burials,

to the delight of scientists

from the local university.

But physical anthropologist

Bernardo Arriaza,

now with the University of Nevada,

will never forget a visit

to a site where the water company

was digging trenches.

I remembered in 1983,

it was a quiet day

when the water company called us.

They said they had

found something unusual,

so that really caught our interest.

"And we get called all the time,

and you never know

what you're going to find,

so that's also

the exciting part of going.

You don't know

what it's going to be.

And this time it was quite

incredible, actually."

The shovels had exposed a plot

of nearly a hundred mummies.

Some would be dated to

of ancient Egypt.

Eerie masks were sculpted

over their faces.

Wigs were glued

directly to their skulls.

Bodies were completely made over-

paste and paint on the outside,

grasses and earth within.

Men, women and children

were mummified.

Even this eight inch long fetus.

These elaborate mummies were created

by a people called the Chinchorro.

They lived along the coast

in simple huts,

and left little behind-

no monuments, no written texts.

But from their bones and artifacts,

Arriaza has compiled a profile of

their lifestyle.

"The Chinchorro people were fishermen.

They fished from the rocks

with fish hooks made of shells.

They also collected shellfish

and hunted sea lions with harpoons.

And they wove beautiful nets

to gather their food.

Their clothing and ornaments

were minimal.

All their emphasis went into

mummifying the dead"

Why would a simple people

transform their dead

into such elaborate creations?

Arriaza has a theory.

"Someone is being mummified,

it's a lot of energy investment,

it's a lot of caring.

Even the fetuses are fascinating.

Why? Because they have long hair,

they have the mouth open.

That's conveying life.

"We tend to see our dead

as someone that's farther away.

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