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255Arseniasis as an environmental hipothetical explanation
Volumen 37, N
2, 2005. P
ginas 255-260Chungara, Revista de Antropolog
a Chilena
 Bernardo T. Arriaza*
This essay explores the idea that arsenic poisoning was the impetus for the origin of the oldest mummification practice in theworld. The Chinchorro people artificially mummified fetuses and infants starting 7000 years ago, but we do not know why. TheChinchorro lived in an extremely toxic environment; the Camarones River had arsenic levels up to 1000µg/L, which is a hundredtimes the modern safety level. Chronic exposure to arsenic produces spontaneous abortions and preterm births. Interestingly, theearliest Chinchorro mummies are all infants. Under these environmental conditions, the Chinchorro miscarriage rate was likely 30times higher than any other Andean population. Thus, arseniasis is a plausible environmental hypothesis to explain the origin of theChinchorro
s unique mortuary practice and infant mummification. In other words, Chinchorro mortuary practice began as a cul-tural response to an environmental phenomenon that was deadly to the population.
Key words
: Arseniasis, fetal health, artificial mummification, spontaneous abortions, stillbirths, infant mortality.
En este ensayo se postula que el origen de la momificación de los Chinchorro, la más antigua del mundo, fue provocado por unenvenenamiento crónico con arsénico. Hace 7.000 años la gente Chinchorro comenzó a momificar intencionalmente a fetos einfantes y no sabemos por qué. Los Chinchorro vivían en un medio ambiente extremadamente tóxico con aguas de río que contie-nen niveles de arsénico de 1.000 µg/L, es decir, 100 veces más de los niveles recomendados para la salud. El arsenicismo produceabortos espontáneos y el nacimiento de niños prematuros y resulta interesante que las primeras momias Chinchorro son todosinfantes. Entonces el arsenicismo trajo como consecuencia que las mujeres Chinchorro tuvieran tasas de abortos probablemente30 veces más altas que cualquier población. Se postula entonces que arsenicismo es una posible hipótesis medioambiental queexplicaría el origen de esta singular práctica de momificar a los muertos y porque comienzan a momificar a los infantes. Es decir,esta práctica de momificar a los muertos surgió como una respuesta cultural frente a un fenómeno medioambiental que diezmabaa la población.
 Palabras claves
: arsenicismo crónico, salud del feto, momificación artificial, abortos espontáneos, nacidos muertos,mortalidad infantil.
*Departamento de Antropolog
a; Centro de Investigaciones del Hombre en el Desierto, Universidad de Tarapac
, Casilla 6D,Arica, Chile. barriaza@uta.clRecibido: marzo de 2005. Aceptado: agosto de 2005.
Chinchorro was a pre-ceramic culture that con-trary to expectations developed complex mummi-fication systems starting about 5000 B.C. (Arriaza1995; Aufderheide et al. 1993; Standen 1997). Thedead were transformed into statue-like figures byadding sticks, clay, and mineral pigments to hu-man skin and bones. Scholars have debated howand where Chinchorro artificial mummificationdeveloped (Allison et al. 1984; Arriaza 1985;Standen 1997); but the question of why has re-mained unanswered for nearly a hundred years. Thefirst Chinchorro mummies were those of children(Schiappacasse and Niemeyer 1984). Here, it isshown that arseniasis is a plausible and testablehypothesis to explain the origin of this unique prac-tice. The Chinchorro began to mummify their deadin the Camarones Valley in northern Chile wherethe Rio Camarones has on average 1000µg/L ar-senic levels (Cornejo 2004; Figueroa 2001:8). Thisis a hundred times in excess of 10µg/L, the stan-dard deemed acceptable by the World Health Or-ganization (http://www.who.int/mediacentre/fact-sheets/fs210/en/). Chronic exposure to arsenicproduces spontaneous abortions, stillbirths, andpreterm births (Ahmad et al. 2001; Centeno et al.2002). Arseniasis threatened group survival, andas an emotional response Chinchorro people like-ly created artificial mummification to assuage theirsocial grief. The importance of this essay lies indebating how endemic elemental hazards affected
Bernardo T. Arriaza256
the health of ancient people and shaped them cul-turally as well.Environment and culture shape societies. Poi-sons affect our health and behavior, and do so es-pecially when they occur endemically and in highconcentrations. Medium to high arsenic levels arecommon in the drinking water of the coastal areasof northern Chile from Arica to Antofagasta(Figueroa 2001; Hopenhayn et al. 2000). However,the narrow coastal oasis of Camarones has the high-est modern levels of arsenic in the area, and is birth-place of these life-size mummy-figures. Camarones
water has an arsenic concentration of 1000µg/L,while nearby Lluta valley has a concentration of 200µg/L (Figueroa 2001). Arsenic is a naturallyoccurring toxic element hazardous to humans. Ar-seniasis produces hyperpigmentation of the skin,keratosis, and systemic diseases including carci-nomas of the liver and bladder (Ahmad et al. 2001;Centeno et al. 2002). Keratosis and skin cancersrelated to arseniasis (Figueroa 2001; Figueroa etal. 1988) have affected modern and Inka people(ca. 1400 A.D.) of the Camarones valley of north-ern Chile. However, despite prehistoric evidenceof arseniasis, no archeological studies have focusedon its possible impact on reproduction and infantmortality.The fact that the oldest human-made mummiesin this area come from the Camarones 14 site (Schi-appacasse and Niemeyer 1984) and are all infantsand children is intriguing and deserves a closerexamination. Using clinical and bioarchaeologicaldata, an environmental model is proposed here toexplain how environment, health, and culture in-terconnect (Figure 1).Camarones is a narrow and shallow river. Not-withstanding its high arsenic content, this oasisprovided food for the early inhabitants that popu-lated this area for thousands of years. The Chin-chorro were small groups of fisher folk living inthis extremely toxic environment. Figueroa (2001)reported that arsenic was present in the food andthe plants they used for bedding, clothing, and shel-ter. Autopsies of late Camarones mummies (ca.1500 A.D.) revealed keratosis and high levels of arsenic in various bodily tissues. In addition, theChinchorro people had infant mortality rates rang-ing from 21-26% (Arriaza 1995; Schiappacasse andNiemeyer 1984). Today, we know extreme arse-niasis in the range of 800µg/L severely affected fetalgrowth and dramatically increased rates of stillbirthand infant mortality in Antofagasta (about 600 kmsouth of Camarones) between 1960-1970 (Hopen-hayn et al. 2000). The city
s dwellers were drink-ing arsenic-contaminated water supplied by theToconce River. In the seventies, an arsenic remov-al plant reduced the toxic levels to 40µg/L. How-ever, despite lower levels today, another study of 424 Chilean infants from Antofagasta suggests aclear link between water quality and low birthweight (Hopenhayn et al. 2003). Antofagasta in-fants have significantly lower birth weights thantheir southern Chilean counterparts
a conse-quence of pregnant mothers
consuming water con-taminated with arsenic levels four times higher thanrecommended levels. Arsenic levels in water inAntofagasta are 30-40 µg/L while in central Chileit is < 1µg/L (Hopenhayn et al. 2000; 2003).Offspring chronically exposed to high levelsof arsenic have increased mortality. In addition todecreased birth weight of newborns, arseniasiscomplications in children include mental retarda-tion and systemic organ damage leading to low redblood cell production, skin keratosis, and bladderand liver cancer (Ahmad et al. 2001; Centeno et al.2002; Figueroa 2001). Children exposed to morethan five years of chronic arsenic may develop an-giosarcoma (Centeno et al. 2002). Given these en-vironmental and pathophysiological facts, there isno doubt that Chinchorro women from Camaronesfaced many miscarriages. High rates of miscarriageand infant mortality directly threatened the smallCamarones Chinchorro fishing villages. In this lifethreatening and population bottleneck, reproduc-tive scenario, Chinchorro parents, especially moth-ers, faced an increasing social pressure to producechildren who could survive. A biocultural link be-tween the development of artificial mummificationand arseniasis is plausible.Generally, artificial mummification is associ-ated with hierarchical societies with socio-politi-cal complexity and intense social competition.Chinchorro anthropogenic practices began in theCamarones Valley about 5000 B.C. and endureduntil about 1100 B.C. This was a truly unexpectedcultural phenomenon for a pre-ceramic society, notonly for the antiquity and complexity of the mum-mies, but because the dead were transformed intoartistic figures (Arriaza 1998). Chinchorro subsis-tence was based on fishing, and hunting marinemammals. Technologically, they were quite sim-ple; they relied on reeds to make baskets, clothes,
257Arseniasis as an environmental hipothetical explanation
Figure 1. Map of the region showing Chinchorro sites, in water supplies and arsenic levels.
Sitios Chinchorro y niveles de arsénico en fuentes de agua.
and fishing gear. Lithic knives and small harpoonscomplemented their tools. The Chinchorros lackedceramics, metals, and woven textiles, yet they de-veloped one of the most intriguing mummificationpractices in the world. It is very likely that there wasa connection between high environmental arseniclevels and the origin of mummification, with arse-niasis triggering Chinchorro mortuary practices.
Luta River: 200µg/LCamarones River: 1000µg/L
HipódromoChinchorroEl MorroPlaya MillerQuianiCamaronesPisagua ViejoPunta PichaloBajo MollePatillosCaleta Huelén 42CobijaHipódromo
100 km
Region where artificial mummification began

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