Haunting ‘mermaid’ mummy discovered in Japan is even weirder than scientists expected

A recent study of a mummified "mermaid" discovered in a Japanese shrine has revealed its true composition, and it is not what scientists expected.

A centuries-old mummified “mermaid” discovered by experts to be a grotesque doll of animal parts is much stranger than previously assumed, according to new research.

Haunting 'mermaid' mummy discovered in Japan is even weirder than scientists expected 1
The creature is about 30cm tall and has been worshipped for hundreds of years. © Kinoshita Hiroshi / Fair Use

Researchers discovered the mermaid, which is around 12 inches (30.5 centimeters) long, in a locked wooden box within a Japanese shrine in Okayama Prefecture in 2022. At the time, researchers assumed it was created from a monkey’s torso and head sewn onto the body of a headless fish.

The haunting hybrid, which resembles a Ningyo from Japanese mythology – a fish-like creature with a human head said to cure disease and increase longevity – was previously displayed in a glass case at the temple for people to worship before being stored away more than 40 years ago.

According to a letter inside the mummy’s box, the specimen was taken by a fisherman between 1736 and 1741, although it was most likely fabricated decades later as a fake to sell to wealthy people looking to enhance their health or live longer lives.

Researchers from Japan’s Kurashiki University of Science and the Arts (KUSA) took possession of the mermaid (with permission from the temple’s priests) and began studying the eerie artifact using a variety of techniques such as X-ray and CT (computerized tomography) scanning, radiocarbon dating, electron microscopy, and DNA analysis.


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A CT scan of the mermaid used in the new research. © KUSA / Fair Use

On February 7, 2023, the team finally released its findings in a KUSA statement (translated from Japanese). And what they found out about the mermaid was even more bizarre than expected.

The findings revealed that the mermaid’s torso was composed primarily of cloth, paper, and cotton and was kept together by metal pins going from the neck to the lower back. It has also been painted with a sand and charcoal paste mixture.

The torso, on the other hand, was covered in parts taken from different creatures. Parts of the arms, shoulders, neck, and cheeks were covered in mammal hair and fish skin, most likely from a pufferfish. The mermaid’s mouth and teeth were most likely obtained from a predatory fish, and its claws were formed of keratin, indicating that they were derived from a real but unidentified animal.

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A digital reconstruction of the mermaid showing different layers of the “body”. © KUSA / Fair Use

The mermaid’s lower half did come from a fish, most likely a croaker – a ray-finned fish that makes a croaking sound with its swim bladder to help it manage its buoyancy.

Although the researchers were unable to discover any full DNA from the mermaid, radiocarbon analysis of the scales revealed that they could date back to the early 1800s.

According to the experts, the mermaid was most likely created to deceive people into believing that Ningyos and their alleged healing qualities were real. However, it also demonstrates that the con artists behind the creation put in far more work than expected in putting together the fake creature.

There have been 14 more “mermaids” discovered in Japan, and the team now plans to compare them.

The study originally published in KUSA on February 2nd, 2023.