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Intro Mass Spectrometry Extracting Mummy DNA Deciphering Disease in Ancient Mummies Limits of the New Science
Deciphering Disease in Ancient Mummies

A mummies hand Medical science has come a long way in the study of ancient remains since the first Egyptian mummy was unwrapped and autopsied in the early 19th century. In fact, these days most mummies studied are not unwrapped at all, nor are some ever removed from their coffins. That's possible because of the development of a variety of non-invasive medical and diagnostic techniques, which are now commonly used to study mummies. The oldest and still most frequently used is x-ray. "The majority of evidence we get about ancient disease is simply from bones because most mummies are in such poor condition with regard to their soft tissues," says osteopathologist Dr. Richard Sullivan of University College London and England's Cancer Research Campaign. Sullivan specializes in the study of ancient diseases in bones and in the development of medical technology in ancient Egypt. "By taking x-rays, we can see fractures, the degeneration of bone from osteoarthritis -- which was very common among the Egyptians -- and make assumptions about lifestyle and diet. Muscles leave an imprint on bone telling how big they were and how much they were used, which can provide information as well."

A new trend in the study of mummies is the use of computerized tomography, or CT, scans. CT-scans take x-rays of thin layers of the body. Computers can stack the sections on top of one another, something like the slices in a loaf of bread, to create a three-dimensional picture of the body, including bones and soft tissues. The data from CT-scans can be fed into software programs that allow scientists to "virtually" remove the layers of a mummy -- resin, linens, skin, and muscles -- one by one. "So you can see through coffins you don't want to open, or through bandages you don't want to remove," Dr. Sullivan says, "and you can build up a picture of what the mummy might have looked like in life."

Many mummies are also now being subjected to minimally invasive procedures like endoscopy, "the same technique that's used to look inside people's stomachs," Dr. Sullivan says. The probes, which can be popped through a small hole cut through a mummy's wrappings, can be used to remove small bits of internal tissues for study. Before tissues can be examined microscopically, stained to detect the presence of parasites or the immunological signature of bacterial infections, or subjected to chemical analyses that reveal the use of narcotics or poisons, they first have to be carefully rehydrated. Egyptian mummies were extensively dried out -- inside and out -- leaving the tissue dry and brittle. To further complicate tissue analysis, the "libation fluids" that mummies were treated with caused further damage to soft tissues. "We call the process 'slow combustion damage,'" Dr. Sullivan says. "Over the centuries, the tissues would effectively burn up, and that's bad news."

Researchers have had enough luck rejuvenating ancient tissues to paint a detailed picture of the diseases that plagued ancient Egypt. Parasitic disease -- from roundworm and tapeworm infection to schistosomiasis, strongyloides, and malaria -- were rampant among the ancient Egyptians (who compiled their own catalogues of parasitic worms). Sand pneumoconiosis, which is caused by the repeated inhalation of sand, was common, as was tuberculosis. Signs of polio have been found, as have indications of plague and fairly good evidence of smallpox.

The ancient Egyptians, however, rarely suffered from the diseases the western world knows best: cancer and heart disease. And that points out one of the best reasons to study the diseases of the ancients, Dr. Sullivan says. "Today we are very tied up with modern diseases like coronary heart disease and cancer, which are really the products of the fact that we actually live too long. But if you look at the rest of the developing world, you are looking at infectious diseases that have been around for millennia and that relate to the development of civilization." The link is intimate, Dr. Sullivan says. Until people began settling into communities and living in close proximity, contagious diseases like tuberculosis would not have been a problem. And before those settlers began domesticating animals and living in close quarters with them, parasites and other pathogens could never have made the jump from the animals to man. "By studying mummies, we can get an idea about how diseases have changed over time. It puts human disease into perspective."

For more information: Animal Mummies in the Cairo Museum.

Secrets of the Pharaohs