Mummification is usually associated with the age of Pharaohs, with the practice largely believed to have first arisen around 2200 BCE and hit its peak around 1000 BCE. But processes this complex don't just spring up overnight, and now an international team of researchers has found further evidence that deliberate mummification was taking place a millennium and a half earlier and across a much wider area of Egypt than previously believed.

Traditional thinking holds that the ancient Egyptians were "inspired" to experiment with preserving bodies after noticing how the hot, dry desert would naturally mummify the dead. Complex embalming agents weren't believed to be used until the late Old Kingdom period, circa 2200 BCE, with the civilizations fine-tuning the processes over thousands of years.

But the current team, made up of researchers from the Universities of York, Macquarie, Oxford, Warwick, Trento and Turin, suspected the roots lay deeper. In 2014, they spotted the signatures of embalming chemicals in the wrappings of older bodies, found in tombs in Mostagedda.

For the new work, the researchers examined Mummy S. 293, a male specimen that dates back to between 3700 and 3500 BCE and was originally thought to be a natural mummy. Although it's resided in the Egyptian Museum in Turin since 1901, previous studies have overlooked it. Interestingly, it had also never had any modern preservation techniques applied to it, meaning it was free of contamination and ripe for investigation.

Using a suite of different methods, the researchers analyzed the chemicals present in the body and the cloth it had been wrapped in, the style of the textiles, the microorganisms it contained and used radiocarbon dating to determine its age. All of these methods were in rough agreement that the body was about 5,600 years old – right in the middle of the expected window.

But most striking was the clear presence of embalming chemicals. The team found that the funerary textiles had been coated in a mix of a plant oil, a gently-heated conifer resin, an aromatic plant extract and a plant gum or sugar. This recipe was found to have antibacterial and preservative properties, and was used in the kinds of proportions that embalmers would have used some 2,500 years later, during the peak of mummy-making.

"By combining chemical analysis with visual examination of the body, genetic investigations, radiocarbon dating and microscopic analysis of the linen wrappings, we confirmed that this ritual mummification process took place around 3600 BCE on a male, aged between 20 and 30 years when he died," says Jana Jones, co-lead author of the study.

It's not just the age but the location of the mummy that's unusual. This specimen was uncovered in Upper Egypt, which the team says indicates that this embalming process was being used across a wider range of the civilization than previously thought.

"Having identified very similar embalming recipes in our previous research on prehistoric burials, this latest study provides both the first evidence for the wider geographical use of these balms and the first ever unequivocal scientific evidence for the use of embalming on an intact, prehistoric Egyptian mummy," says Stephen Buckley, co-lead author of the study. "Moreover, this preservative treatment contained antibacterial constituents in the same proportions as those used in later 'true' mummification. As such, our findings represent the literal embodiment of the forerunners of classic mummification, which would become one of the central and iconic pillars of ancient Egyptian culture."

The research was published in the Journal of Archaeological Science.