Nov
10
2005

Dr. Arthur Aufderheide, a teacher at the University of Minnesota at Duluth, helped to found the science of paleopathology-the study of ancient diseases. He autopsies mummies, salvaging and studying mummy organs from all over the world.

Aufderheide uses his collection of more than 6,000 samples of mummy tissue to identify the diseases that plagued ancient populations. His work helps to show where diseases evolved and how they spread, and may even help to cure modern ailments.

Traces of ancient diseases

Paleopathologists value tissue samples from mummies because they may still show signs of illnesses. Mummy eyes are usually well preserved, and can provide evidence of eye diseases as well as chronic conditions such as diabetes, high blood pressure, some kinds of cancer, nutritional deficiencies, and fetal alcohol syndrome. Scientists can also diagnose illnesses caused by bacteria and parasites-such as tuberculosis, malaria, and Chagas' disease-from mummy tissues.

Learning from the dead

Until very recently, paleopathologists looked at individual mummies and wrote case reports: they could sometimes prove the presence or absence of a disease in one person, but they couldn't test big hypotheses or compare modern populations to ancient ones.

Aufderheide, on the other hand, has tissue samples from 283 mummies from Peruvian and Andean coastal South America at different time periods. Today, many people in those areas suffer from Chagas' disease-an incurable illness caused by a parasite. Aufderheide and colleagues used DNA analysis to search for signs of the disease in the mummies. Because they had such a large number of samples, they were able to compare the mummies to modern-day populations and generate statistically significant results. They found the parasites in 41% of the samples, and the percentage was the same for both sexes, all ages, and all time periods. Their results suggest that people in coastal South America have been exposed to Chagas' disease for 9,000 years.

Your Comments, Thoughts, Questions, Ideas

Liza's picture
Liza says:

This website is full of information about mummies, including a question and answer page with links to lots of cool photos and stories.

posted on Thu, 11/10/2005 - 2:04pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

mummies are gross and werid.

posted on Tue, 04/04/2006 - 1:09pm
Liza's picture
Liza says:

Looking at individual cases isn't without value, however. For example, until recently, most scientists thought that tuberculosis came to the Americas with European explorers. A few signs--mostly deformities in skeletons--hinted that the disease might have already been present, but the evidence wasn't conclusive. But in 1994, Aufderheide and a team of paleopathologists managed to retrieve DNA of the bacterium that causes tuberculosis from lymph nodes in the lung of a 1000-year-old Peruvian mummy. She died 500 years before Columbus set sail, proving beyond any doubt that tuberculosis was present in the Americas long before European contact.

Mummy lung
This is mummified lung tissue from a woman who died in Peru 1,000 years ago. The two "hills" are tuberculosis-infected lymph nodes. (Photo courtesy Dr. Arthur Aufderheide)

Mummy parts
Her body was dismembered when ancient tomb robbers stole her bracelets, necklace, and other jewelry. But her chest, and the infected lung tissue inside, remained intact. (Photo courtesy Dr. Arthur Aufderheide)

posted on Thu, 12/15/2005 - 12:48pm
Liza's picture
Liza says:

In October, National Geographic had a cool on-line feature about mummy eye restoration and what researchers can learn from mummy eyes.

posted on Wed, 12/21/2005 - 9:31pm
Liza's picture
Liza says:

Dr. Aufderheide tested bone tissue extracted from the bodies of Don Garzia and Giovanni Cardinale Medici, along with their mother, Eleonora de Toledeo, so he could test for the parasite that causes malaria. (Legend has it that Don Garzia stabbed his brother, Giovanni, and that when their father discovered the crime, he stabbed Don Garzia. But archaeologists examining the bodies found no evidence of that kind of trauma, and family letters tell of malarial outbreaks in the area and Giovanni's high fever before he died.) Aufderheide's tests for the parasite that causes malaria were all negative, but the Medicis might have suffered from the disease anyway. Aufderheide's work continues...

posted on Wed, 12/21/2005 - 9:36pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

i think that is very interesting! WOW yeah right

posted on Tue, 01/10/2006 - 3:51pm
j's picture
j says:

Dr. Arthur Aufderheide is my hero. He speaks to a group of people in this summer program that i go to and i enjoy it every time. I love hearing what he has to say. woohoO

posted on Thu, 11/16/2006 - 11:05am
AA's picture
AA says:

I didn't even know anything on this subject. Thanks for the info!

posted on Wed, 12/27/2006 - 4:06pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

Thats really weird

posted on Sat, 01/06/2007 - 6:54pm
Darby's picture
Darby says:

thats cool!

posted on Thu, 09/20/2007 - 10:38am
mdr's picture
mdr says:

Dr. Aufderheide appeared in the Discovery Channel documentary SECRETS OF THE DINOSAUR MUMMY that aired last Sunday night. His time on screen was fairly short, and he didn't perform any dissection of Leonardo the mummified Brachylophosaurus, but what the heck.

posted on Wed, 09/17/2008 - 10:01pm

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