The Broader Picture: Kept man

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WHILE MOST people associate mummification with the pyramids, treasures and legendary curses of the Egyptian tombs, the tradition of mummification is in fact far more widespread and ancient, ranging across the world from the Canary Islands to China and Siberia.

According to the anthropologist and author Howard Reid, who has been fascinated by mummies since he was a schoolboy, the tradition of mummification goes back furthest in South America. They were preserving their dead in this way from 7-8,000 years ago, millennia earlier than the Egyptians.

The mummy pictured here was a member of the Chiribaya tribe, and was recently excavated from the Ilo region in southern Peru. Nicknamed Roberto by the archaeologist who excavated him, he is sitting on the side of the road while awaiting transportation to a local museum. His elaborate plaits and cap of feathers mark him out as a person of consequence; he died at around the age of 40, about 1,000 years ago.

Roberto owes his survival partly to the local environment - extreme aridity and nitrate-rich soil - but also to a sophisticated system of preservation. "The South Americans used the most elaborate mummification techniques ever," explains Reid. "They would skin the bodies, remove the organs, make stick frames, fill them out with mud and padding, and then put the skin and hair back on." Some were wrapped in elaborately woven cloth, with gold and jewellery tucked into its folds. The Chiribaya would include scale models to show the trade of the mummified person - perhaps a miniature sea-going raft for a fisherman.

South American mummies served several purposes. "Ancestors were preserved as go-betweens between the spirit world and the everyday," says Reid. "While the climate was benign much of the time, periodically there would be disasters like volcanic eruptions, with flooding, landslides and tsunamis. El Nino would pass through every 30 years or so. Many believe the mummies were supposed to intercede on behalf of the people in the face of natural disasters." Mummies were also part of social continuity, he adds. "Having your granddaddy still around was like having a title deed to the family land."

Many Peruvian mummies were destroyed by the conquering Spanish, who, as Christians, found the cult idolatrous. Today, however, people are taking pride in their preserved ancestors again, and the likes of Roberto are seen as an important part of the national heritage. "People are always drawn to preserved human beings," says Reid, who has just published a book about global mummy culture. "It is about cheating death."

`In Search of the Immortals: Mummies, Death and the Afterlife', by Howard Reid is published by Headline, price pounds 18.99. IoS readers can purchase the book for the special price of pounds 16.99 (including p&p); to order call 0135 827 750 and quote reference `50 Immortal'