John’s research may help answer questions about the origins and migration patterns of a people who developed mummification techniques 3,000 years before the Egyptians.
John Van Hoesen, associate professor of geology and environmental studies at GMC, was awarded a Fulbright grant to unravel mysteries about the ancient Chinchorro mummies found along the Chilean coast. Thousands of years before the rise of the Incan Empire, the Chinchorro people took elaborate measures to mummify their dead. Entombed in the driest climate in the world, the mummies are the focus of intense scholarship. Where did these shore dwellers obtain the clay and manganese used in their elaborate burial masks?
John’s research has implications beyond the discipline of geology—it may help answer questions about the origins and migration patterns of a people who developed mummification techniques 3,000 years before the Egyptians.
“Most archeologists think the Chinchorro didn’t travel much beyond 40 kilometers, but there is no modern source of manganese within 60 kilometers of the burial sites,” John explained. “Also, the source of the clay used to create the masks has not been discovered. This suggests that they moved beyond the 40 kilometer range to find these materials—or the original sources have since been buried or exhausted.”
John sees his work in Chile as a project in “forensic geology”—applying his skills to help archaeologists determine if the Chinchorro originated from the highlands or from the coast. Working with colleagues including Dr. Bernardo Arriaza, a researcher at the Instituto de Alta Investigación in Arica, Chile, he is excited about how his research may illuminate one of the oldest societies in the Western Hemisphere. But as a scientist, he understands discovery is a process of trial and error.
“Either we get down there and we collect samples and find out that ‘Hey, the chemical signature of these rocks 80 kilometers away match the chemistry of the manganese in the masks.’ Or they’re not the right rocks. It could be a really cool story. Or it could be back to the drawing board. But that’s science. That’s how it works.”