The Mummies’ Medical Secrets? They’re Perfectly Preserved

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“It was very strange,” Dr. Piombino-Mascali said of the examinations, “because we were not feeling as if they were just objects of cultural and archaeological interest. It was a feeling like they were with us willing to do a checkup for their medical conditions.”

The researchers sent samples from a 17th century mummified child to a colleague in Canada, who uncovered remnants of variola virus that causes smallpox, which once ravaged most of the world. By sequencing the virus, the team has gained insight into the origins of the deadly scourge.

“There was no evidence on any remains that would suggest a smallpox infection, so the presence of variola virus was very surprising,” said Ana Duggan, a biologist from McMaster University who worked with Dr. Piombino-Mascali. “It’s the oldest complete genome that we have of variola virus.”

She said the ancient DNA has helped them map out the timeline of smallpox. Historical accounts from Eygpt, China and India had suggested that smallpox had infected humans for thousands of years. But by comparing the 17th century strain with modern variola samples, they found the strains shared a common ancestor that emerged between 1530 and 1654. Their finding suggests that the deadliest kinds of smallpox may have evolved much more recently than previously thought.

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Contemporary health and ancient remains

The discovery in the Lithuanian crypt is one of the latest in a long line of important medical findings that have used intensive analysis of mummified to show how diseases connect modern humans to the experiences of our forebears.

In 2013 a team led by Dr. Randall C. Thompson, a cardiologist at St. Luke’s Mid America Heart Institute in Kansas City, Mo., performed C.T. scans on 130 mummies from ancient Egypt and pre-Columbian Peru, as well as those of Native Americans in the Southwest and the Unangan people of the Aleutian Islands.

He and his colleagues discovered that more than a third of the mummies had some form of atherosclerosis, or hardening of the arteries, which can lead to heart disease. The affected mummies came from various geographical regions and lived over a span of more than 4,000 years — a reminder that heart troubles have long been prevalent and are not simply the result of modern diets.

“We found that heart disease is older than Moses,” he said. “This disease was present and not hard to find all over the world covering a wide swath of human history.”

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Cases of atherosclerosis and tuberculosis were found among mummies in the church crypt, offering insights into the health problems of the upper class in 18th- and 19th-century Vilnius. Credit Kiril Cachovski of the Lithuanian Mummy Project, 2015

Using burial markings on the tombs, they identified their oldest case of coronary heart disease in Ahmose-Meritamun, an Egyptian princess who lived from 1550 to 1580 B.C. and was in her 40s when she died. The oldest example of clogged arteries they found belonged to an Egyptian mummy from around 2,000 B.C.

Dr. Mark Pallen, a professor of microbial genomics at the University of Warwick, made similar findings in 2015 while studying tuberculosis in mummies found in a Hungarian crypt with more than 200 bodies.

He and his team had extracted tuberculosis bacteria DNA from the lungs of eight 200-year-old mummies, discovering that ancient people could get multiple strains of the bacteria throughout their lifetimes.

They used a technique known as metagenomics sequencing, which had not been previously used on mummified corpses. It allowed the researchers to extract microbial DNA directly rather than having to grow the bacteria on a plate.

Because of its success in mummies, he had used the technique with mucus samples from people to get DNA from tuberculosis bacteria. “In this case, the dead did instruct the living,” Dr. Pallen said.

Back in Lithuania, Dr. Piombino-Mascali said cases of both atherosclerosis and tuberculosis had been found among mummies in the church crypt. The findings offered evidence that even the upper class in 18th- and 19th-century Vilnius experienced chronic health problems, including those related to poor nutrition.

But most important to Dr. Piombino-Mascali, the mummies now are sharing their stories.

“That crypt was a witness to all of the historical faces of Vilnius,” Dr. Piombino-Mascali said. “But now it’s finally given back to the city. The stories belong to Lithuania and especially the Lithuanian people.”

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