London: The process of mummification started in ancient Egypt 1,500 years earlier than previously thought, says an 11-year long study, thus pushing back the origins of a central and vital facet of ancient Egyptian culture by over a millennium.
Scientific evidence for the early use of resins in artificial mummification has, until now, been limited to isolated occurrences during the late Old Kingdom (2200 BC).
Their use became more apparent during the Middle Kingdom (2000-1600 BC).
In new research, the team of researchers identified the presence of complex embalming agents in linen wrappings from bodies in securely provenanced tombs in one of the earliest recorded ancient Egyptian cemeteries at Mostagedda, in the region of Upper Egypt.
"For over a decade, I have been intrigued by early and cryptic reports of the methods of wrapping bodies at the Neolithic cemeteries at Badari and Mostagedda," said Jana Jones of Macquarie University, Sydney.
To reach this conclusion, Stephen Buckley, a research fellow at University of York, used a combination of gas chromatography-mass spectrometry and sequential thermal desorption/pyrolysis to identify a pine resin, an aromatic plant extract, a plant gum/sugar, a natural petroleum source, and a plant oil/animal fat in the funerary wrappings.
"The antibacterial properties of some of these ingredients and the localised soft-tissue preservation represent the very beginnings of experimentation that would evolve into the mummification practice of the Pharaonic period," he explained.
Predating the earliest scientific evidence by more than a millennium, these embalming agents constitute complex, processed recipes of the same natural products, in similar proportions, as those employed at the zenith of Pharaonic mummification some 3,000 years later.
It was notable that the relative abundances of the constituents are typical of those used in mummification throughout much of ancient Egypt`s 3,000 year Pharaonic history.
"Moreover, these resinous recipes applied to the prehistoric linen wrapped bodies contained antibacterial agents, used in the same proportions employed by the Egyptian embalmers when their skill was at its peak, some 2500-3000 years later," explained professor Thomas Higham from University of Oxford.