A 500-year-old frozen Incan mummy known as ‘The Maiden’ was suffering from a bacterial infection when she died – and being able to ‘diagnose’ the disease could lead to new insights into diseases of the past.
The discovery could help defend against new illnesses – or the re-emergence of diseases of the past.
The mummy was suffering from an illness similar to tuberculosis when she was sacrificed on the Argentinian volcano Llullaillaco, 22,100 feet above sea level.
The find – using a new technique of swabbing the lips and comparing the swabs with those of current patients – is the first time a disease has been ‘diagnosed’ in such an ancient body.
Ritual killings were common within the Incan culture. In 1999 three Children of Llullaillaco, who found deep frozen were found with an extraordinary collection of elaborate gold, silver and shell statues, textiles and pots containing food The children included a 13-year-old known as the ‘Llullaillaco Maiden’
‘Pathogen detection in ancient tissues isn’t new, but until now it’s been impossible to say whether the infectious agent was latent or active,’ says Corthals.
‘Our technique opens a new door to solving some of history’s biggest mysteries, such as the reasons why the flu of 1918 was so devastating. It will also enhance our understanding of our future’s greatest threats, such as the emergence of new infectious agents or re-emergence of known infectious diseases.’
The place of sacrifice: The burial site of the three children on top of Llullaillaco Volcano
The analysis was possible because of the incredible preservation of the mummy, which is so well-preserved there were still lice in her hair.
The team swabbed the lips of two Andean Inca mummies, buried at 22,000-feet elevation and originally discovered in 1999, and compared the proteins they found to large databases of the human genome.
They found that the protein profile from the mummy of a 15-year old girl, called ‘The Maiden,’ was similar to that of chronic respiratory infection patients, and the analysis of the DNA showed the presence of probably pathogenic bacteria in the genus Mycobacterium, responsible for upper respiratory tract infections and tuberculosis.
Child sacrifice was called capacocha. The process of capacocha could begin years before the selected person was killed. A mummified body of a child who was killed during one such sacrifice is pictured here
In addition, X-rays of the lungs of the Maiden showed signs of lung infection at the time of death.
The mummies were found in 1999.
‘The doctors have been shaking their heads and saying they sure don’t look 500 years old but as if they’d died a few weeks ago,’ said U.S. archaeologist and expedition member Johan Reinhard at the time.
‘And a chill went down my spine the first time I saw her hands because they look like those of a person who is alive.’
It’s thought that the children were chosen by the Incas for their beauty and sacrificed in a ceremony called a capacocha.
‘The Incas didn’t do this very often,’ according to Reinhard.
‘The sacrifices were children because they were considered to be the most pure.’
They were not sacrificed to feed or appease the gods but, rather, ‘to enter the realm of the gods and live in paradise with them. It was considered a great honour, a transition to a better life from which they would be expected to remain in contact with the community through shamans (holy men).
The Incas believed that by scaling the snow-topped heights of the mountains they could get closer to the heavens and communicate better with the gods.
Detecting diseases in ancient remains is often fraught with difficulty, especially because of contamination.
Techniques based on microbe DNA can easily be confused by environmental contamination, and they can only confirm that the pathogen was present, not that the person was infected, but the researchers behind the study, led by Angelique Corthals of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, City University of New York, found a way around this problem.
They used proteomics, focusing on protein rather than DNA remains, to profile immune system response from degraded samples taken from 500 year-old mummies.
Proteomics, DNA, and x-rays from another mummy found together with the Maiden did not show signs of respiratory infection.
‘Our study is the first of its kind since rather than looking for the pathogen, which is notoriously difficult to do in historical samples, we are looking at the immune system protein profile of the ‘patient’, which more accurately tells us that there was indeed an infection at the time of death.’ or
‘Our study opens the door to solving many historical and current biomedical and forensic mysteries, from understanding why the plague of 1918 was so lethal, to finding out which pathogen is responsible for death in cases of multiple infections.’
There, the archaeologists spotted a rectangular walled area, dug down through five feet of rocks and soil and finally uncovered an Incan burial platform.
One of the team was lowered headfirst into the icy pit, his colleagues hanging onto his ankles, so that he could scrape away the soil and pull the dead children out with his hands.
The three Children of Llullaillaco, as the mummies came to be known after the mountain on which they met their death, were found with an extraordinary collection of elaborate gold, silver and shell statues, textiles, pots containing food and even an extravagant headdress made from the white feathers of an unidentified bird.