MUMMIES AND SIGNS OF DISEASE
In rare instances, the soft parts of prehistoric bodies have been pre- served because of favorable burial and climatic conditions or through human ingenuity. Whether sophisticated or primitive, mummiﬁcation techniques have much in common with the preservation of foods and animal hides. Especially well-preserved bodies have been recovered from the peat bogs of northwestern Europe. Peat has been used as a fuel for millennia, giving clumsy peat-gatherers a chance to sacriﬁce them- selves for the future enlightenment of paleopathologists. Some of the ‘‘bog bodies’’ were apparently victims of strange forms of punishment or religious rituals. Sacriﬁcial victims were fed a ceremonial meal, stabbed in the heart, clobbered over the head, strangled with ropes that were deliberately left around their necks, and then pushed into the bog.
Mummiﬁed bodies have also been found in the southwestern United States, Mexico, Alaska, and the Aleutian Islands. In the Western hemisphere natural mummiﬁcation was more common than artiﬁcial methods, but the prehistoric people called the Basket-Makers deliber- ately dried cadavers in cists or caves, disarticulated the hips, wrapped the bodies in furs, and stuffed them into large baskets. Peruvian mum- miﬁcation techniques allowed the ‘‘living corpses’’ of chiefs, clan ances- tors, and Incan rulers to be worshipped as gods. Such mummies provide suggestive evidence for the existence of tuberculosis, hookworm, and other diseases in pre-Columbian America.
Where conditions favor the preservation of organic matter, copro- lites (fossilized human feces) may be found in or near prehistoric camp- sites and dwellings. Indeed, for the dedicated paleopathologist, the contents of cesspools, latrine pits, and refuse piles are more precious than golden ornaments from a palace. Because certain parts of plants and animals are undigestible, information about diet, disease, seasonal activities, and cooking techniques can be inferred from the analysis of pollen grains, charcoal, seeds, hair, bits of bones or shells, feathers, insect parts, and the eggs or cysts of parasitic worms in coprolites. Moreover, the distribution of coprolites in and about ancient dwellings may reﬂect prevailing standards of sanitation.
Patterns of injury may provide clues to environment and occu- pation. For example, fractures of the leg bones were more common in Anglo-Saxon skeletons than fractures of the forearm. These leg injuries are typically caused by tripping in rough terrain, especially if wearing clumsy footwear. In ancient Egypt, broken arms were more common than fractures of the leg bones.
The bones may also bear witness to acts of violence, mutilation, or cannibalism. Evidence concerning cannibalism remains highly contro- versial, but the ritualistic consumption of the ashes, brains, or other parts of departed relatives was practiced until recently by members of certain tribes as a sign of respect for the dead. A disease known as kuru, a degenerative brain disease found among the Fore people of Papua New Guinea, has been linked to ritual cannibalism. In 1976 Daniel Carleton Gajdusek (1923–), American virologist and pediatrician, won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his work on kuru. While conducting epidemiological ﬁeld work in New Guinea, Gajdusek was introduced to a strange neurological disorder found among Fore women and children. Gajdusek concluded that the disease was trans- mitted by ritual cannibalism, in which women and children ate the brains of those who had died of kuru. After the ritual was abandoned, the disease eventually disappeared. Having demonstrated that the dis- ease could be transmitted to chimpanzees, Gajdusek suggested that kuru was caused by a ‘‘slow virus.’’ Scientists later determined that kuru was caused by prions, the ‘‘proteinaceous infectious particles’’ associated with Creutzfeldt–Jakob disease, mad-cow disease, and other spongiform encephalopathies.
Evidence of infectious diseases and parasitic infestations has been
found in the tissues of mummies. Eggs of various parasitic worms have been found in mummies, coprolites, and latrine pits. These parasites cause a variety of disorders, including schistosomiasis (snail fever) and the gross enlargement of the legs and genitals called elephantiasis or pachydermia. Depictions of deformities suggesting elephantiasis are found in prehistoric artifacts. Schistosomiasis is of special interest because stagnant water, especially in irrigated ﬁelds, serves as a home for the snail that serves as the intermediate host for this disease. The incidence of schistosomiasis in a population may, therefore, reﬂect ancient agricultural and sanitary practices.
Ancient artifacts provide a uniquely human source of pseudodiag-noses, because of the vagaries of fashion in the art world. Without knowledge of the conventions peculiar to speciﬁc art forms, it is impos- sible to tell whether a strange and unnatural image represents pathology or deliberate distortion. Masks and pottery may depict abnormalities, artistic exaggeration, or the structural needs of the artifact, as in ﬂat- footed and three-legged pots. Striking abnormalities may be matters of convention or caricature. For example, the Paleolithic statues known as ‘‘Stone Venuses’’ or ‘‘fat female ﬁgurines’’ may be fertility symbols, or examples of idiosyncratic ideas of beauty, rather than actual portrayals of obesity.