Stories tagged paleopathology

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.