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.
‘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 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.
The view from the summit of Llullaillaco volcano where the children were found. The children were plucked from these slopes in 1999 by a team who battled for three days through driving blizzards and 70mph winds to reach the summit
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