The mummies' medical secrets? They're perfectly preserved

The mummies' medical secrets? They're perfectly preserved

The mummies' medical secrets? They're perfectly preserved
Hundreds of skeletons have lain scattered around a crypt beneath a church in Vilnius, Lithuania, for centuries. But 23 of these remains are unlike the rest: Flesh wraps their bones, clothes cover their skin, and organs still fill their insides.

They are mummies, and since they were recovered about five years ago, scientists have investigated their secrets, seeking insights into the lives of people in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries and the diseases they suffered.

“They are so well preserved that they almost look alive,” said Dario Piombino-Mascali, an anthropologist from Italy who has studied the mummies since 2011.

Recently, Dario and his colleagues have uncovered remnants of the smallpox virus in one of the mummies, gaining new insights into the origins of a deadly scourge that killed an estimated 300
million people in the 20th century alone. The work follows on their earlier discoveries: signs of rickets, osteoarthritis and intestinal parasites in the mummies.

And they are not the only researchers unearthing new findings from the bodies of the long dead but well preserved. The study of mummified remains in other parts of the world has yielded historical perspective on the spread of deadly diseases and damaging medical conditions, from heart disease in pre-Columbian Americans to various strains of tuberculosis in 19th-century Europeans.

By understanding how long these diseases have been around and mapping them historically, scientists can better tackle them today.

“Most people don’t realise you can learn about modern medicine from ancient mummies,” said Frank Ruehli, head of the Swiss Mummy Project at the University of Zurich in Switzerland, who is studying the internal organs of Iranian and Egyptian mummies.

Mummified mysteries

Looking at the remains, Dario identified several with dental decay and gum disease, as well as arthritis and bone deformities. To further investigate their health issues, he performed CT scans on the seven best-preserved mummies. One obese man once had arthritis in his spine, pelvis and both knees, a fractured rib on his right side and an enlarged thyroid gland, which might have been caused by goiter. An obese woman had a benign tumor in her lower back. Both had suffered from clogged arteries, a health problem usually associated with modern diets.

The researchers sent samples from a 17th century mummified child to a colleague in Canada, who uncovered remnants of variola virus that causes smallpox, which once ravaged most of the world. By sequencing the virus, the team has gained insight into the origins of the deadly scourge.

“There was no evidence on any remains that would suggest a smallpox infection, so the presence of variola virus was very surprising,” said Ana Duggan, a biologist from McMaster University, Canada who worked with Dario. “It’s the oldest complete genome that we have of variola virus.”

She said the ancient DNA has helped them map out the timeline of smallpox. Historical accounts from Egypt, China and India had suggested that smallpox had infected humans for thousands of years. But by comparing the 17th century strain with modern variola samples, they found the strains shared a common ancestor that emerged between 1530 and 1654. Their finding suggests that the deadliest kinds of smallpox may have evolved much more recently than previously thought.

The discovery in the Lithuanian crypt is one of the latest in a long line of important medical findings that have used intensive analysis of mummified to show how diseases connect modern humans to the experiences of our forebears. In 2013, a team led by Dr Randall C Thompson, a cardiologist at St Luke’s Mid America Heart Institute in Missouri, USA, performed CT scans on 130 mummies from ancient Egypt and pre-Columbian Peru, as well as those of Native Americans in the Southwest and the Unangan people of the Aleutian Islands. He and his colleagues discovered that more than a third of the mummies had some form of atherosclerosis, or hardening of the arteries, which can lead to heart disease. The affected mummies came from various geographical regions and lived over a span of more than 4,000 years.

Using burial markings on the tombs, they identified their oldest case of coronary heart disease in Ahmose-Meritamun, an Egyptian princess who lived from 1550 to 1580 BC. Back in Lithuania, Dario said cases of both atherosclerosis and tuberculosis had been found among mummies in the church crypt. Most

important to Dario, the mummies now are sharing their stories. “That crypt was a witness to all of the historical faces of Vilnius,” Dario said.