For over 100 years, the Bavarian State Archeological Collection in Munich, Germany, has housed an unidentified mummy. No records remained of the mummy. Where had it come from? Who was it? How had the person died? Thanks to science, know we know.
To better understand the origin and life history of the mysterious mummy, researchers examined the skeleton, organs, and ancient DNA using a range of techniques, including CT scans, isotope analysis, and tissue histology. They have just published their findings in the open access journal PLOS One.
So what did the researchers find? By radiocarbon dating, the mummy originates between 1450 and 1640 AD, and examination of the skeleton suggests its of a female, likely to have been 20-25 years old at the time of her death. Analysis of fibres taken from her hair bands suggest they came from a South American llama or alpaca, while isotope analysis of nitrogen and carbon in her hair reveal she lived on a diet of maize and seafood. This and other evidence suggests a life spent in coastal Peru or Chile.
The mummy also showed significant thickening of the heart, intestines, and the rectum, features typically associated with chronic Chagas disease. Chagas disease is a tropical parasitic infection, caused by Trypanosoma cruzi and spread mostly by biting insects known as Triatominae. During the day, these triatomines hide in crevices in the walls and roofs, emerging at night to feed on sleeping inhabitants. Because they tend to feed on people’s faces, triatomine bugs are also known as “kissing bugs”. After they bite and ingest blood, they defecate on their ‘victim’. The parasites are transmitted in the faeces left near the site of the bite wound, which are transferred into the wound when scratched. The researchers found parasites in rectum tissue samples taken from the mummy which were positive for T. cruzi DNA.
But it wasn’t Chagas disease that killed the young lady. Analysis of her skull suggests she suffered a massive blunt force trauma to the centre of her face prior to her death, leading the researchers to speculate that she may have been the victim of a ritual homicide.
Panzer S, Peschel O, Haas-Gebhard B, Bachmeier BE, Pusch CM, et al. (2014) Reconstructing the Life of an Unknown (ca. 500 Years-Old South American Inca) Mummy – Multidisciplinary Study of a Peruvian Inca Mummy Suggests Severe Chagas Disease and Ritual Homicide. PLoS ONE 9(2): e89528. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0089528