MUMMIES AND SIGNS OF DISEASE

11 May

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.

Random Posts

Comments are closed.