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Old Mummies Show Signs of Modern Maladies

X-rays of 1,000-year-old Peruvian bodies find familiar ailments

WEDNESDAY, Nov. 28, 2001 (HealthDayNews) -- The largest group of mummies ever studied by X-ray show signs of modern diseases, say scientists from Quinnipiac University, in Connecticut.

Evidence of tuberculosis, osteoarthritis, malnutrition and terrible teeth are among the illnesses evident in the mummies of Chachapoyan Indians buried high in the Andes Mountains 500 to 1,000 years ago. The tribe's name means "cloud people."

"This is the first time we've looked at the health of such a large group of individuals. We will now be able to make a better assessment of the whole population," says Gerald J. Conlogue, who did the X-rays.

Conlogue, co-director of the university's Bioanthropology Research Institute, presents his findings at today's annual meeting of the Radiology Society of North America in Chicago.

"I was looking forward to hearing the results of this study," says Gary Urton, a Colgate University anthropology professor who has studied the same group of mummies. "The number of mummies isn't all that extraordinary [because Peru has many large burial sites for the Indians], but it is very extraordinary that we found it intact."

Dr. Anthony J. Bravo, an adjunct professor of radiology at Quinnipiac and one of the researchers on the study, says 11.5 percent of the mummies show evidence of tuberculosis in the bones.

Based on current medical knowledge, he says, "An 11 percent infection rate of the bone could mean that five times that many had pulmonary tuberculosis, or 50 to 60 percent of the population."

"We don't know if that was high because the infection rate of ancient peoples is not known, but it seems significant," Bravo says.

Conlogue says the diseases in the mummies seem to predate the arrival of Spanish conquerors to the region in 1535, but Urton, who examined the mummies in Peru two summers ago, disagrees.

"We found in one of the mummies that had been unwrapped a number of beads that were Spanish or Italian," and other mummies were buried with glazed pottery and Christian crosses, evidence of Spanish presence in the area, he says.

European explorers carried infections to which they were immune, Urton says. When Europeans conquered new areas, as much as a 70 percent to 80 percent of the native population died off, "while you don't have a reverse death toll on the part of the conquerors from the indigenous population," he says.

Conlogue's study involved a 40-hour bus ride to the 10,000-foot high village of Leymebamba, Peru, where the mummies are housed at the museum of the Bioanthropology Foundation Peru. Peruvian anthropologists moved 205 mummies to the museum after finding they were being hacked apart in their remote cave burial sites by looters.

Using a 100-pound portable X-ray machine he had brought with him, Conlogue examined the remains of the 188 mummies still intact, wrapped in their burial cloths made of wool from alpacas and llamas, two domesticated South American animals.

Most of the mummies were indians in their late teens to early 40s, but 30 were children younger than 12. While most of the mummies were healthy, evidence of disabling diseases was found in a significant number of the bodies.

Bravo says 22 (12 percent) had osteoarthritis of the spine, suggesting a lifetime of hard manual labor, and nine (5 percent) had osteomalacia, soft bones in the spine that suggest malnutrition.

In addition, Bravo says one-third of the mummies had severe dental problems, including missing teeth so bad they "probably were unable to eat solid foods."

Urton attributes the Indians poor teeth to the influence of the Spaniards who could have introduced sugar and cane alcohol to the native diet.

"I expect [that before the Spanish conquest] their diet was excellent. It was a macrobiotic diet of grains, tubers and crops from the tropical forest," he says.

What To Do

To find out more about tuberculosis, which still is a major illness in many parts of the world, check the U.S. Department of Labor.

Neotropical Journeys, a travel site about expeditions to northern Peru, has some information about the Chachapoyan culture. For general information about Peru, visit The Peruvian Embassy.

The Discovery Channel also has a site devoted to the Peruvian mummies.

SOURCES: Interviews with Gerald J. Conlogue, M.H.S., assistant professor and co-director, Bioanthropology Research Institute, Quinnipiac University, Hamden, Conn.; Anthony J. Bravo, M.D., adjunct professor of radiology and medical director of the radiology technology program, Quinnipiac University, Hamden, Conn.; Gary Urton, Ph.D., professor of anthropology, Colgate University, Hamilton, N.Y.; Nov. 28, 2001, presentation, annual meeting, Radiological Society of North America in Chicago; photo of Conlogue and mummy X-ray taken 1999 in Guilford public schools, Connecticut
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