Mummies reveal diet, health, lifestyle of ancient humans

Robyn Williams: And so to a mummies aspect that did not get celebrated at all last weekend, and there are plenty of them. This is Wendy Zukerman:

Wendy Zukerman: For 7,000 years we humans have mummified our dead. Yes, the ancient cultures of Chile, Egypt, India, Mesopotamia and the Pacific Islands all disembowelled, dried and dissected their corpses. Elsewhere the natural environment has inadvertently turned bodies into mummies. The dry and arid climate around Granada in the south of Spain, for example, has left the local graveyard littered with mummified corpses. And that's where we are today. No, not in the graveyard but in Granada, at the Parque de las Ciencias, where monies are populating the terranean environment. Elisa Wilkinson, project manager of the park's newest exhibition, Mummies: Witnesses of the Past, is ready to show us around.

Right now we are in a room filled with some very gory-looking mummies that are all crouched. Where are these from and how did they come to look that way?

Elisa Wilkinson: These mummies are from the Inca period. They are all natural mummifications, they are not induced like the Egyptians. And when they buried them they would put them in a foetal position and then bound them with cloths then put them in caves. And so due to the dryness and the arid atmosphere of the area they were naturally mummified, and that's why they are in that position, they bury them like that.

Wendy Zukerman: How old are the mummies that we are looking at at the moment?

Elisa Wilkinson: Approximately from about 8,000 years old. So they are before the Egyptian mummies, they are one of the oldest in the world.

Wendy Zukerman: There's around 200 pieces in this exhibition, and you have two very modern ones from Granada. Shall we go have a look at them?

Elisa Wilkinson: Yes, okay. So this is the first one, it's a baby, it's an infant. I mean, it's not even a year old. They estimate that about 70% of the bodies in the cemetery here in Granada due to our climate are actually mummified.

Wendy Zukerman: And the two children that we are looking at now, how old are they?

Elisa Wilkinson: They estimate that it's from approximately the 1940s to where they were found and obviously what they are wearing. It's a relatively modern dress.

Wendy Zukerman: And so from perhaps some of the most modern mummies, in this museum you also have one of the oldest mummies in the world. It's rivalling Ötzi. And it was found in Granada?

Elisa Wilkinson: Yes, he's the second oldest mummy in Europe, it's Galera which is a village here in Granada, will it's about an hour and a half drive from Granada, and he is about 500 years younger than Ötzi.

Wendy Zukerman: And what have we learned about the culture in Granada all those years ago from the study of this mummy?

Elisa Wilkinson: Well, they were actually quite healthy. The food, what they ate was all obviously natural, but they had quite a balanced diet even in those days. We also know that for example this mummy in particular, he was some form of craftsman because of the bones, the bone structures, how they are, and how worn the bones are. We know that he used his hands a lot when he worked. We know that he died from a stomach infection because when they actually did the analysis of the tissue in the stomach they found that it was absolutely empty, so that induces everyone to think there was some form of stomach infection. He was very tall for the time. He was approximately 165, 167, which is a very decent height for that age.

Wendy Zukerman: Does the mummy in Granada have a name?

Elisa Wilkinson: They call him Galera, they call him just Galera because that's where he was found. I think that from the very beginning they started calling him Galera and he is just stuck with the name.

Wendy Zukerman: Speaking of names, some of the mummies here have some very interesting names from where they were discovered. We are now looking at one which has a very open mouth, that brown copper skin, it looks like it's part of The Scream, that painting.

Elisa Wilkinson: Yes, they call him The Crier. When all the commissioners from different museums came to actually place their pieces in the showcases, we were talking with them and I realised that every one of them had a name or a nickname for their mummies, like The Crier. Okay, what is this? And one of them said, 'Listen, we're with these mummies that are quite gruesome, so we have to lighten up the atmosphere a bit, so each one of them we give them nicknames,' which I found quite amazing and quite curious actually.

Wendy Zukerman: This exhibition has been put together in the Parque de las Ciencias, and it obviously involved a huge amount of collaboration from the University of Granada and also Italy, Egypt, everything. Did you find that through this collaboration, the scientists were able to learn more about certain topics?

Elisa Wilkinson: Well, actually one of the areas, the area which is dedicated to Egypt, and we have Egyptian heads there that come from the University of Turin, one of the heads has a small piece of gold in the mouth region. And the curator when she was placing the head, she was saying, you know, 'Through the X-rays we know that he has got a coin in his mouth.'

But then in the showcase next to it there was the curator from the museum in León and she was placing mummified animals in the showcase, and she was overhearing us and she went, 'Well, hang on a minute, we've got a head in our museum, we did the X-ray, we thought it was a coin, but when we opened him up it was actually a gold tongue. So when you get back, look at your X-rays because although it looks like a gold coin, it may be a gold tongue.'

So amazing, just one person from Italy, another person from a city here in Spain, that they just meet up because they are collaborating on the same exhibition, and one gives the information like that, just offhand. And the woman for Turin was just, 'Wow, when I'm getting back I'm going to have a look at it.' So, actually amazing. There are just small stories like that which has been an absolute delight when we produced this exhibition.

Wendy Zukerman: Thank you very much for your time.

Elisa Wilkinson: Okay, thank you very much.

Robyn Williams: Elisa Wilkinson taking Wendy Zukerman and us around the mummy exhibition in Granada.

© Australian Broadcasting Corporation