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Mummification in the Mojave

If you’ve done your fair share of exploring in the Mojave Desert, you may have come across some odd things – maybe, perhaps, even a mummified animal. When people think of mummification, typically the pharaohs of ancient Egypt come to mind, but the process of mummification can happen naturally in dry environments as well.


Some use the term “mummy” to refer to bodies that are deliberately embalmed in chemicals, but the term has been applied to accidental/naturally made mummies since the early 17th century (New English Dictionary on Historical Principles). A mummy can be defined as a dead human or animal whose soft tissues and organs have been preserved by either intentional or accidental exposure to chemicals, extreme cold, low humidity, or a lack of air.

To understand how mummification occurs, it is important to first understand the process of decomposition. Decomposition begins at the time of an animal’s death and is caused by two factors known as autolysis and putrefaction. When an animal dies, the heart stops, and blood can no longer supply oxygen or remove carbon dioxide from the tissues. This causes an animal’s cells to break down, which releases cellular enzymes. These enzymes can break down the other surrounding tissues and cells in the body. This process is called autolysis- in which the body’s own enzymes begin breaking down the body (Dominguez).


After death, there is a small amount of oxygen still present in the body. This oxygen is sought after and used up by cellular metabolism and microbes that are naturally found in the body, such as in the intestinal tracks. This leads to the growth of more organisms, which consume what carbohydrates, proteins, and lipids are available in the body thus breaking it down further. This process is called putrefaction (Dominguez). Later, other decomposers such as bacteria and scavengers such as insects, coyotes, vultures, and crows can break down the body further, aiding in its decomposition (Gibbon, National Geographic).


Bodies that are mummified do not go through this entire process. When exposed to the right conditions, putrefaction does not occur as bacteria are not able to grow and survive. In purposeful mummification, the body is often treated with embalming chemicals which repel insects and slow down the putrefaction process by killing bacteria already in the body or by stopping the cells from becoming a nutrient source for other bacteria to consume (Dominguez).


Naturally, remains can be mummified in both cold and hot temperatures. In very cold environments, the body freezes before bacteria can grow and break down the remains. In dry environments, there is a high amount of heat and a lack of moisture. This heat causes bacteria to die and stops the body from further decay (Dominguez). The Mojave Desert is a prime location for natural mummies to occur, as we have a very hot and dry climate which can prevent bacteria from forming and halt the decomposition process. In addition, other naturally forming mummies have been formed in peat bogs, a type of wetland with a lot of dead plant material or peat occurring in it. The soil in these bogs is acidic and does not have a lot of oxygen- which leads to less bacteria growth and thus less decomposition.

At MOAH, we have several mummified animals within our collection. On display at the Western Hotel Museum is a partially preserved Desert Tortoise, which has one of its front feet preserved, scales and all. Found at the Elyze Clifford Interpretive Center is a partially preserved mummified rabbit skull, which has become misshapen and still has some fur present.


2022.FIC.397 Partially mummified rabbit skull from MOAH Collections


Perhaps one of the most interesting items is a mummified mouse stuck inside an amber glass bottle. This item was excavated in 1994-1995 by archaeologists when the new Lancaster Sherriff Station was being constructed on the corner of Sierra Hwy and Lancaster Blvd. The bottle is likely from Lancaster residents from the early 1900s. It is likely that the poor mouse ventured inside the bottle looking for water or a sweet treat and was unable to get out.


1996.13.57 Mummified mouse inside glass bottle photo provided by MOAH Collections




1996.13.57 Mummified mouse inside glass bottle video provided by MOAH Collections


To learn more about the Mojave Desert environment and the animals and plants that call it home, be sure to visit the Elyze Clifford Interpretive Center at 43201 35th St W, Lancaster, CA 93536. We are open on Wednesdays, Saturdays, and Sundays from 10 am to 4 pm (Closed Holidays).

Works Cited


Dominguez, Trace. “How Do Mummies Form Naturally? 10,000-year-old mummified lions were recently found buried deep in a glacier. What are the other ways nature takes us back in time?”, Seeker, published on 11/8/2025. How Do Mummies Form Naturally? - Seeker


Gibbon, Victoria. “How scavengers can help forensic scientists identify human corpses”, The Conversation. How scavengers can help forensic scientists identify human corpses (theconversation.com)


MOAH Collections. Images of 1996.13.57 and 2022.FIC.397.


National Geographic. The Role of Scavengers: Carcass Crunching. The Role of Scavengers: Carcass Crunching (nationalgeographic.org)


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