Ancient Inca Mummy had Lung Infection at Time of Sacrificial Death

By Chelsea Whyte on July 27, 2012 4:47 PM EDT

MUMMY
The 15-year-old Incan Mummy known as "The Maiden" was found to have a lung infection when she was sacrificed atop a volcano 500 years ago. (Photo: Angelique Corthals/PLoS ONE)

New studies of the 500-year-old mummy of an Incan girl known as "The Maiden" show that the 15-year-old suffered from a lung infection, most likely tuberculosis, at the time of her death.

She was discovered  in 1999 near the summit of the Argentinian volcano Llullaiaco. According to the Los Angeles Times, past research found that she and two other young children were sacrificed to Pachamama, the earth goddess, in the ritual of Capacocha after being fattened up, their bodies preserved by the freezing temperatures.

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Now, a study published in PLoS ONE describes a new technique for detecting diseases in mummified remains that helped researchers uncover the health of The Maiden at the time of her death.

Testing ancient remains for diseases can be a tricky task due to the possibility of environmental contamination. Techniques based on microbe DNA can tell a researcher if a disease was present, but not necessarily determine whether the person was infected.

"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," said Angelique Corthals of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice at City University of New York.

"Our study is the first of its kind since rather than looking for the pathogen, which is notoriously difficult to do in historical samples, we are looking at the immune system protein profile of the "patient", which more accurately tells us that there was indeed an infection at the time of death," she said.

Corthals and her colleagues at SUNY Stony Brooks swabbed the lips of The Maiden and the 7-year-old boy who died with her and looked not at their DNA, but at the proteins in the samples. This method, called proteomics, allowed them to compare the mummies' protein profiles to a large database of the human genome, where they found that The Maiden showed a similar protein makeup as that of chronic respiratory infection patients.

The analysis of the DNA showed the presence of probably pathogenic bacteria in the genus Mycobacterium, responsible for upper respiratory tract infections and tuberculosis. The team also X-rayed the lungs of the mummy and found signs of lung infection. The young boy showed no signs of infection.

"What I really wanted to do originally was see where the blood I found on the mummies' clothing and lips came from," Corthals told The Huffington Post. "But we found a whole lot more than we were expecting."

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