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June 9, 2017

The mummy's secret: 'Modern' diseases aren't so modern after all

Daily Briefing

    With the discovery of 23 "spontaneously mummifi[ed]" bodies buried underneath a Lithuanian church, researchers are examining the history of diseases that affected our ancestors in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries—and gaining new insights on how to tackle those diseases today, Nicholas St. Fleur writes for the New York Times.

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    "Most people don't realize you can learn about modern medicine from ancient mummies," Frank Rühli—head of the Swiss Mummy Project at the University of Zurich, who was not involved with the Lithuanian project—said. But "these historic patient records are like a box of candy for us."

    'The Chamber of Death'

    Beneath the Dominican Church of the Holy Spirit in Vilnius, Lithuania, lies a crypt where the remains of people who lived in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries are stored. While the skeletons are all that remain for most of the deceased, some of the bodies spontaneously mummified as a result of cool temperatures and ventilation, St. Fleur writes.

    In the 1960s, forensic scientist Juozas Albinas Markulis began studying the remains. At the time, Markulis and his team identified about 500 bodies in the crypt overall, of which about 200 were mummified. However, in 1962, government officials investigated the site and—citing concerns that the bodies may have infections that could cause an epidemic—ordered the remains to be sealed behind glass. The area, St. Fleur writes, got a new name: The Chamber of Death.

    According to St. Fleur, glass cut off the airflow, increasing the humidity of the area and causing the mummified bodies to decay. As a result, by the time a new batch of anthropologists began studying the remains in 2008, only 23 of the original 200 mummies remained intact. 

    But the remaining mummies are so perfectly preserved, St. Fleur writes, that researchers have begun assessing them to garner insights into medical conditions from centuries past.

    Lithuanian mummies shed new light on smallpox

    Assessing the remains, Dario Piombino-Mascali, an anthropologist on the team, identified several medical conditions, including tooth decay, gum disease, arthritis, bone disease, and—in at least one mummy—evidence of a seemingly modern-day affliction: clogged arteries. But the most illuminating discovery, the researchers said, was a mummified child from the 17th century who had the variola virus, which causes smallpox. 

    According to Ana Duggan, a biologist from McMaster University who worked with Piombino-Mascali, "It's the oldest complete genome that we have of variola virus." And it's particularly interesting, she said, because "there was no evidence on any remains that would suggest a smallpox infection, so the presence of variola virus was very surprising."

    The DNA sample has helped the researchers map the timeline of smallpox, Duggan said. She explained that historical accounts from China, Egypt, and India indicate that the disease has infected people for several thousand years. But when the researchers compared the 17th century strain with modern variola samples, they discovered that the strains had a common ancestor that likely emerged between 1530 and 1654—indicating that the most lethal versions of smallpox might have evolved much more recently than previously estimated. 

    The researchers also discovered cases of atherosclerosis—a hardening of the arteries that can lead to heart disease—and tuberculosis among the mummies. According to Pallen, the findings suggest that even those in the upper classes in the 18th and 19th century in Vilnius struggled with chronic conditions, including those stemming from inadequate nutrition.

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    Lithuanian mummies contribute to growing field of mummy research

    But while the discovery illuminates part of the history of smallpox, it's far from the only medical insight garnered from mummies, St. Fleur writes. 

     For instance, Randall Thompson, a cardiologist at St. Luke's Mid America Heart Institute, and colleagues, in 2013 performed CT scans on 130 different mummies from several countries, including ancient Egypt and pre-Columbian Peru, and found that more than one-third of the mummies had some version of atherosclerosis.

    The mummies represented disparate geographic locations, and together lived and died over a 4,000-year time period, Thompson said, so the findings suggest that our ancestors have long been struggling with heart problems frequently ascribed to our modern-day diets. "We found that heart disease is older than Moses," said Thompson. "This disease was present and not hard to find all over the world covering a wide swath of human history."

    In fact, according to Thompson, the oldest case of coronary heart disease recorded in their sample was an Egyptian princess who lived from 1550 to 1580 B.C., while the oldest example they found of clogged arteries belonged to a person who lived around 2000 B.C.

    Meanwhile, in 2015, Mark Pallen, a professor of microbial genomics at the University of Warwick, and colleagues used a technique called metagenomics sequencing to collect tuberculosis bacteria DNA from the lungs of eight mummies found in a Hungarian crypt, all of whom were more than 200 years old. The researchers discovered that people living during that time could contract multiple types of the bacteria over the course of their lives—and because the method of DNA extraction was successful with the mummies, Pallen was then able to use the technique on mucus samples from people to get DNA from tuberculosis bacteria. "In this case," he said, "the dead did instruct the living" (St. Fleur, New York Times, 6/2).

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