Tag Archives: mummy

8,000-year-old skeletons in Portugal could be world’s oldest mummies

After they revisited photos of ancient human skeletons first exhumed in Portugal’s Sado Valley in the 1960s, archaeologists now believe that the 8,000-year-old remains went through a mummification practice before their burial. This would make the remains the oldest evidence for Mesolithic mummification in Europe. In fact, it could very well be the earliest evidence of mummification in the world.

Researchers performed experiments to study how the human body decomposes in various conditions and positions. This illustration depicts three states of soft tissue decomposition, from the fully fleshed body on day one to body desiccation seven months later. Credit: European Journal of Archaeology.

The oldest evidence of deliberate mummification in Egypt, the most famous region in the world for mummies, is about 5,500 years old. However, researchers believe mummification may have been much more common during prehistoric times and could in fact be much older — it’s just that evidence is hard to come by due to the fragile nature of mummified tissue.

But using a clever technique, it may be possible to tell whether decomposed remains may have originally undergone mummification, significantly extending the timeline of such burial practices.

Excavations in the Sado Valley in southern Portugal, at the sites of Arapouco and Poças de S. Bento, between 1958 and 1964 recovered more than 100 skeletons dating between 8,000 and 7,000 years ago. Unfortunately, much of the original documentation for these extraordinary finds was lost, including photographs, site plans, and field drawings.

That’s until João Luís Cardoso, an archaeologist at the Open University in Lisbon, came across three rolls of film while studying a local archive.

These verified photos depict 13 bodies exhumed in 1961 and 1962, which Cardoso and colleagues used to reconstruct their likely burial positions using an archaeothanatological analysis. Based on knowledge of natural decay processes, this method has made it possible to reconstruct in detail how humans have historically dealt with their dead.

An illustration comparing the burial of a fresh cadaver and a desiccated body that has undergone guided mummification. Credit: Uppsala University and Linnaeus University in Sweden and University of Lisbon in Portugal.

In addition to observations about the spatial distribution of the ancient bones from Sado Valley,  forensic anthropologist Hayley Mickleburgh performed decomposition experiments to predict how human corpses pin different burial positions could look like if they had been mummified or not.

Together, these observations suggest that some of these remains must have been mummified. Although there was no soft tissue left, the archaeologists reached this conclusion based on deductions from indirect evidence like the position of the bodies, with their knees bent and pressed against the chest, as well as the presence of sediment infill around the bones and the absence of disarticulation. An unprepared decomposing corpse will disarticulate at weak joints relatively quickly after its burial, but mummified bodies still preserve articulation.

The authors of the new study believe that before being buried, the desiccating bodies were gradually tightened with ropes, binding the limbs in place and compressing the remains into the desired position. This would explain some of the signs of mummification, which was likely performed to ease transport to the grave and to preserve the shape of the body in life after burial.

Overall, the Portuguese researchers strongly believe that prehistoric mummification may have been much more widespread across the world than previously thought, despite the lack of direct evidence of soft tissue. This is why follow-up observations of ancient archaeological sites using archaeothanatological analysis are paramount in order to uncover new robust evidence of pre-burial practices in prehistory. In other words, this may just be the beginning of a new exciting phase in mummy archaeology.

Whether or not the Sado Valley burials represent the oldest mummies in the world discovered thus far remains contested. The oldest confirmed mummies in the world are the 7,000-year-old Chinchorro mummies, found on Chile’s coast. But people likely mummified their dead much earlier than that, even in hunter-gatherer communities.

The findings appeared in the European Journal of Archaeology.

X-rays reveal hidden amulet inside Egyptian child mummy

Researchers used a combination of CT scans and X-ray diffraction to discover more about the ancient mummy. Credit: Stuart Stock.

Two decades ago, scientists performed X-ray scans on a child mummy excavated in 1910 at the ancient Egyptian site of Hawara, dating from the time when Egypt was ruled by the Roman Empire. Now, the mummy has been revisited with updated technology. The high-resolution scans revealed some peculiar objects stashed in the mummy’s abdomen that had initially been concealed.

The body of the ancient mummy belonged to a girl child who was only 5 years old when she died. Known as Hawara Portrait Mummy No. 4, the mummy is currently stored in the collection of Northwestern University’s Block Museum of Art.

Like many other mummies from ancient Egypt under Roman rule, the mysterious girl’s mummy had a portrait attached to the front surface. Although the portrait is that of an adult woman, the small mummy is definitely that of a child — so young that none of her permanent teeth had yet emerged.

Using a combination of computed tomography (CT) and X-ray diffraction for the first time, researchers at the Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago created a 3D map of the contents of the mummy.

Dozens of X-ray microbeams smaller than the width of a human hair were shone onto the mummy, which revealed small objects hidden inside the mummy case.

Credit: Stuart Stock.

One of the hidden artifacts is a small chunk of calcium carbonate with a high degree of purity. The opaque object is about the shape of a scarab, a symbol of rebirth.

The size and positioning of the scarab suggest it could be an amulet that was placed in the mummy’s wrappings over the abdomen to protect the child in the afterlife. Yet this is still relatively speculative since the CT scan’s resolution wasn’t high enough to make out the nature of the object with a high degree of certainty.

In any event, a pure calcium carbonate scarab wasn’t cheap, hinting about the social status of the mummy. The person was probably from the upper echelons of Egyptian society, perhaps even royalty.

Portrait found attached to the mummy dating from 150-200 A.D. Credit: Stuart Stock.

Although the researchers cannot establish the cause of death of the five-year-old girl, the CT scans did not reveal any sign of skeletal trauma, so a violent end can be ruled out.

As often happens with ancient burials, studies like these raise more questions than they answer. But that’s just expected when dealing with any good mystery.

The findings appeared in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface.

Tattoos in ancient Egypt may have been common

Tattooing may have been more widespread in Ancient Egypt than previous thought. A new study seems to suggest after researchers analyzed mummies that were inked with different motifs.

An infrared scanner pointed on a mummy’s shoulder revealed two eyes symbolizing protection and a hieroglyph of a bent papyrus plant. Credit: A. AUSTIN.

Although mummification can preserve tissue in extraordinary condition it also discolors and darkens the skin. This makes spotting tattoos incredibly challenging. Tattoos fade during a person’s lifetime, after all, not to mention after thousands of years.

But thanks to infrared photography, it is possible to differentiate a tattoo’s ink from mummified tissue. This is what a team of researchers did on the mummies of seven women, which were found at Deir el-Medina, near the extravagant tombs of the Valley of the Kings.

The team, led by Anne Austin, an anthropologist at the University of Missouri, made their first investigations in 2014 after researchers noticed markings on the neck of one of the Deir el-Medina mummies. These markings were not painted on, as initially thought, but were actually tattoos. The body of this female alone was adorned with no fewer than 30 tattoos on her neck, back, and behind the shoulders.

The tattoo featured sacred motifs in ancient Egyptian culture, such as scarab beetles, lotus flowers, cobras, cows, or baboons. Other tattoos looked like hieroglyphs used in Egyptian writing. This suggests that the woman may have been a healer or priestess.

In their new study, the researchers describe tattoos on six other mummified women adorned with similar motifs. One of the women had a human eye on her neck, for example, which is known to be an ancient Egyptian symbol associated with protection.

Previously, tattoos had been found on only six other Egyptian mummies. These findings suggest that perhaps researchers simply had used the right method to spot them and that perhaps the practice was much more widespread than previously thought.

The oldest known tattoos actually belong to the famous 5,250-year-old Ötzi the Iceman mummy, found in the Alps. Ötzi had at least 61 tattoos that we know of, for instance. Elsewhere, ancient tattoos have been found in mummies found in Sibia or the Ukok Plateau.

This may be just the beginning. Who knows what scientists might find if they use this method to probe the skin of the thousands of mummies stored in museums around the world.

The findings were reported at the American Schools of Oriental Research annual meeting held in San Diego in November.

Dr Stephen Buckley, University of York

Ancient Egyptians embalmed mummies 1,500 years earlier than thought

Dr Stephen Buckley, University of York

Fragment of the mummy housed at the Egyptian Museum in Turin since 1901. Credit: Dr Stephen Buckley, University of York.

An extensive analysis of a prehistoric mummy that had been gathering dust in an Italian museum showed that sophisticated embalming is far older than we thought. According to the international team of researchers that carried out the analysis, ancient Egyptians practiced embalming since at least 3700-3500 BC and did so over a wide geographical area.

The mummy in question has been housed at the Egyptian Museum in Turin, Italy, since 1901. Researchers chose it because it had never undergone conservation treatments, providing an extremely rare opportunity to sample unadulterated Egyptian embalming.

At first, scientists thought that the mummy had been naturally mummified through the desiccating action of the hot, dry desert sand. A chemical analysis, however, revealed that the mummy had, in fact, gone through an embalming process.

The mummification process took place on a male, aged between 20 and 30 years at the time of his death. Radiocarbon dating suggests that the mummy was embalmed around 3600 BC, during the Naqada phase of Egypt (4400-3000 BC), substantially earlier than the classic Pharaonic period.

The embalmer used plant oil, heated conifer resin, an aromatic plant extract, and a plant gum/sugar mixed together and used to impregnate the funerary textiles in which the body was wrapped. This sophisticated recipe is very similar to those employed by Egyptian embalmers 2,500 years later, when the craft is generally considered to be at its peak.

The new findings suggest that embalming was practiced at a high level 1,500 years earlier than previously accepted, an impressive margin.

The new work builds on previous research from 2014 which identified complex embalming agents in ancient fragments of linen wrappings from tombs unearthed at Mostagedda in Middle Egypt. The Turin mummy came from Upper (southern) Egypt, which shows that the embalming recipe was being used over a wider geographical area at a time when the concept of a pan-Egyptian identity was supposedly still developing.

“Having identified very similar embalming recipes in our previous research on prehistoric burials, this latest study provides both the first evidence for the wider geographical use of these balms and the first ever unequivocal scientific evidence for the use of embalming on an intact, prehistoric Egyptian mummy,” said Dr. Stephen Buckley, an archaeological chemist and mummification expert at the University of York.

“Moreover, this preservative treatment contained antibacterial constituents in the same proportions as those used in later ‘true’ mummification. As such, our findings represent the literal embodiment of the forerunners of classic mummification, which would become one of the central and iconic pillars of ancient Egyptian culture.”

Reference: Stephen Buckley et al. “A prehistoric Egyptian mummy: evidence for an ’embalming recipe’ and the evolution of early formative funerary treatments.” Journal of Archaeological Science, 2018.


Surreal, six-inch mummy with an elongated skull finally described by scientists

It’s the strangest human mummy you’ll likely ever see, and it’s not an alien.

The alien-like mummified specimen from Atacama region of Chile. Credits: Bhattacharya et al. 2018.

In 2003, researchers found an incredibly bizarre mummy in Chile. Measuring a mere 6 inches, with an extremely elongated skull and several extreme abnormalities, it only remotely looked human. The questions came in fast, and they poured in: what is? Is it human — and if it is human, why does it look so strange?  The specimen was auctioned off to a Spanish businessman which delayed proper studies but now, results from the first comprehensive analysis are finally in.

“This was an unusual specimen with some fairly extraordinary claims put forward. It would be an example of how to use modern science to answer the question what is it?” says senior author Garry Nolan from Stanford University.

Not an alien

Thankfully, Ata, as the skeleton was named (short for Atacama), contains some high-quality DNA which researchers were able to sequence. They compared Ata’s DNA with human and non-human primate reference genomes, including chimpanzee and rhesus macaque. To the chagrin of UFO hunters, researchers learned that Ata is very much human and even more — she has Chilean ancestry.

DNA results will certainly disappoint UFO conspiracists, but Ata is very much human — although she’s incredibly small and suffers from several malformations. Image credits: Garry Nolan.

Although researchers believed Ata was a few years old, Nolan now believes she was either stillborn or only lived for a few days. It’s unclear exactly when Ata lived, though the skeleton seems to be at least several decades old — probably some 40 years.

Next, researchers moved on to look for more clues regarding Ata’s extremely short stature and unusual features, which aside from the obvious skull malformation, include an abnormal rib count and premature bone age. They found multiple mutations in genes associated with diseases such as dwarfism, scoliosis, and musculoskeletal abnormalities. Surprisingly, all these malformations can be explained with a relatively short list of gene mutations in genes associated with bone development, Nolan says.

However, Ata is more than just an interesting specimen. Since she had the grave misfortune of suffering such severe abnormalities, she can teach us quite a bit about how the gene mutations can affect the human body.

“This is a great example of how studying ancient samples can teach us how to analyze modern day medical samples” says co-author Atul Butte, from the UCSF.

Aside from her skeletal malformations, Ata also probably suffered from something called congenital diaphragmatic hernia — a fairly common, but also life-threatening condition where a baby’s diaphragm doesn’t form correctly. Nolan told The Guardian:

“She was so badly malformed as to be unable to feed. In her condition, she would have ended up in the neonatal ICU, but given where the specimen was found, such things were simply not available,” he said.

“While this started as a story about aliens, and went international, it’s really a story of a human tragedy. A woman had a malformed baby, it was preserved in a manner and then ‘hocked’ or sold as a strange artefact. It turns out to be human, with a fascinating genetic story from which we might learn something important to help others. May she rest in peace.”

Journal Reference: Bhattacharya S, Li J, Sockell A, Kan M, Bava F, Chen, S, Ávila-Arcos M, Ji X, Smith E, Asadi N, Lachman R, Lam H, Bustamante C, Butte A, Nolan G. 2018. Whole genome sequencing of Atacama skeleton shows novel mutations linked with dysplasia. Genome Research doi: 10.1101/gr.223693.117.

Edit: In its original form, this article had an error regarding Ata’s age.

DNA study shows 4,000 year-old mummies are half brothers

A genetic analysis has revealed that two mummies named “The Two Brothers” are, in fact, brothers. The two mummies were buried some 3,800 years ago and stirred quite a debate.

The tomb of the ‘mummy brothers’. Site map showing the burial location with a diagram of the tomb and the burial of the two coffined mummies in situ. On the right are the inner coffins of Nakht-Ankh (above) and Khnum-Nakht (below). Credits: Drosou et al (2018) / Journal of Archaeological Science.

In 1907, Sir Flinders Petrie, a well-known Egyptologist, uncovered a rather unusual burial chamber. The burial chamber hosted not one, but two individuals. In a small chamber placed within the courtyard of a bigger tomb, Petrie found four coffins: two for the human bodies, and another two inner anthropoid coffins for each. He also uncovered a canopic box with four canopic vessels as well as three statuettes of the tomb owners, some wooden models of servants, models of boats and some pottery vessels.

The entire complex was moved to Manchester in 1908, where it has resided ever since at the Manchester Museum. But anthropologists had a puzzling question they couldn’t answer: were the two actually brothers?

Hieroglyphic inscriptions on the coffins indicated that the two people were Khnum-nakht and Nakht-ankh, the sons of a local governor. Not long after they were brought in, both men were unwrapped by the UK’s first professional female Egyptologist, Dr. Margaret Murray. Murray concluded that the skeletal morphologies of the two were quite different — different enough to say that they’re not related. She concluded that one of them must have been adopted.

The two mummies, side by side. DNA was extracted from the teeth, which were checked to see if they were firmly attached to the skeleton. The mummies suffered no damage in the process. Image credits: Museum of Manchester.

So for the longest time, the Two Brothers were actually thought to be not brothers — not biological brothers, in any case. With no way to solve this problem, the issue was simply dropped until the advent of DNA sampling. In 2015, ‘ancient DNA’ was extracted from their teeth to solve the mystery and now, the results are finally in.

Analysis revealed that both of them belonged to mitochondrial haplotype M1a1, which indicates that they had the same mother. However, the Y chromosome sequences (which were less complete) indicated significant differences between the two, which likely means that they had different fathers. The results were confirmed by several independent laboratories and researchers by only analyzing teeth firmly embedded in their sockets to ensure that they belonged to the correct individual.

The presence of identical mtDNA indicates that Nakht-Ankh and Khnum-Nakht had a maternal relationship, consistent of a shared mother or perhaps a more distant kinship relationship such as cousins or uncle-nephew. So there was some truth to their different physiologies, but the two were still related — probably half-brothers. Dr. Konstantina Drosou, of the School of Earth and Environmental Sciences at the University of Manchester who conducted the DNA sequencing, said:

“It was a long and exhausting journey to the results but we are finally here. I am very grateful we were able to add a small but very important piece to the big history puzzle and I am sure the brothers would be very proud of us. These moments are what make us believe in ancient DNA. ”

The study, which is being published in the Journal of Archaeological Science, is one of the first to successfully use the typing of both mitochondrial and Y chromosomal DNA in Egyptian mummies. Unfortunately, placing the finding into a broader context is impossible, as this is the only example of two men buried together in an intact Pharaonic tomb. It might be an indication of polyandry (polygamy in which a woman has more than one husband) happening in Ancient Egypt, but at this point, it’s simply impossible to tell.

Scientists used Argonne’s Advanced Photon Source to peer inside an ancient Egyptian-Roman mummy without damaging it. Credit: Northwestern University.

Particle accelerator peers inside rare Egyptian-Roman mummy

Scientists at Northwestern University have used a high-energy particle accelerator for the first time to peer inside a mummy. The Egyptian mummy belongs to a girl that was five years old at the time of her death, about 1,900 years. Analysis revealed unique details about the girl and burial process, such the quality of her bones and what items were placed inside her remains, without causing any damage to the mummy itself.

Scientists used Argonne’s Advanced Photon Source to peer inside an ancient Egyptian-Roman mummy without damaging it. Credit: Northwestern University.

Scientists used Argonne’s Advanced Photon Source to peer inside an ancient Egyptian-Roman mummy without damaging it. Credit: Northwestern University.

The team carefully moved the mummy from the Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary on Northwestern’s Evanston campus to Argonne National Laboratory, which houses the brightest source of X-rays in the Western hemisphere — the extremely powerful high-energy synchrotron at Argonne’s Advanced Photon Source. It was the first study of its kind performed on a human mummy. Typically, this instrument is used for physics experiments, but the same method can be used to peer through organic samples without deteriorating them. The pencil-shaped X-ray beam — which is has twice the diameter of a human hair — was shined on areas of high density in the mummy, producing X-ray diffraction patterns.

Researchers used these ‘fingerprints’ to identify crystalline materials inside the mummy. For instance, they found wires in the mummy’s teeth and a small, mysterious object wrapped to the stomach, which looks like a stone. Inside the skull, ancient embalmers seem to have placed shards of an object likely made of tar after the brain was removed.

“This is a unique experiment, a 3-D puzzle,” said Stuart Stock, Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. “We have confirmed that the shards in the brain cavity are likely solidified pitch, not a crystalline material.”

Credit: Northwestern University.

Credit: Northwestern University.

About three feet long, the little Egyptian girl’s body is swaddled in linen, with the outermost wrappings arranged in an intricate, ornate geometric pattern. The overlapping rhomboid linen serves to frame a portrait of the girl painted in the Roman-Egyptian style. She is just one of only 100 such portrait mummies found in the world. These are significantly different from the more familiar Egyptian mummies, which usually features three-dimensional, sculpture-style faces.

“Intact portrait mummies are exceedingly rare, and to have one here on campus was revelatory for the class and exhibition,” said Marc Walton, a research professor of materials science and engineering at Northwestern’s McCormick School of Engineering.

“This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for our undergraduate students — and for me — to work at understanding the whole object that is this girl mummy,” Walton said. “Today’s powerful analytical tools allow us to nondestructively do the archaeology scientists couldn’t do 100 years ago.”

The study allowed the team to create a 3-D map of the mummy’s structure, helping them confirm the girl was 5 years old, give or take nine months, at the time of embalming. By knowing more about how she died and how she was prepared after death, scholars can now paint a more accurate picture of how this rare technique panned out thousands of years ago. Some of the findings could have never been possible were it not for pioneering work at the intersection of various fields of study and with the help of cutting-edge technology.

“We’re basically able to go back to an excavation that happened more than 100 years ago and reconstruct it with our contemporary analysis techniques,” Walton said. “All the information we find will help us enrich the entire historic context of this young girl mummy and the Roman period in Egypt.”

Egypt mummy

First DNA analysis of mummies shows ancient and modern Egyptians don’t really have much in common anymore

In an impressive scientific breakthrough, an international team of researchers reports sequencing the genomes of ancient Egyptian mummies for the very first time. The study helps tie some of the loose ends around the river Nile in Middle Egypt and the ancient population that inhabited the region for millennia. One striking finding is that modern Egyptians are far more related to Sub-Saharan Africans than ancient Egyptians, who were most closely related to ancient populations in the Levant.

Egypt mummy

Sarcophagus of Tadja, Abusir el-Meleq. Credit: bpk/Aegyptisches Museum und Papyrussammlung, SMB/Sandra Steiss.

For many researchers working with DNA sequencing, Egypt is both a blessing and curse. It’s an almost ideal scientific proving ground because of its rich and well-documented history. It’s always been at the crossroads between many populations and cultural influences from Africa, Asia, or Europe. The practice of mummification which can be traced back to 6,000 years ago is also a godsend for many researchers since they have to rely less on the accidental preservation of remains. The ancient Egyptians did all the dirty work for them!

At the same time, Egypt’s aggressive climate, which is very hot and humid, can easily degrade the DNA. Even though archaeologists know of thousands of Egyptian mummies that are thousands of years old, the conditions in the tombs are such that the long-term survival of DNA in Egyptian mummies is very unlikely.

But thanks to a lot of hard work and recent advances in genetic sequencing, an international team was able to make a breakthrough and come up with an unprecedented glimpse into the genetic history of Egypt. The collaboration is comprised of researchers from the University of Tuebingen, the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Jena, the University of Cambridge, the Polish Academy of Sciences, and the Berlin Society of Anthropology, Ethnology, and Prehistory.

For their work, the authors sampled 151 mummified individuals from the archaeological site of Abusir el-Meleq, along the Nile River in Middle Egypt. In total, they recovered mitochondrial genomes (from the mother’s side only) from 90 individuals, and genome-wide datasets from three individuals over a 1,300-year time span. These results were then compared to modern populations.

Map of Egypt, showing the archaeological site of Abusir-el Meleq (orange X), and the location of the modern Egyptian samples used in the study (orange circles). Credit: Graphic: Annette Guenzel.

Map of Egypt, showing the archaeological site of Abusir-el Meleq (orange X), and the location of the modern Egyptian samples used in the study (orange circles). Credit: Graphic: Annette Guenzel.

This data allowed the researchers to assess the continuity in the genetic makeup of the ancient inhabitants of Abusir el-Meleq, but also to test previous hypotheses up to now confined to the realm of speculation.
“We wanted to test if the conquest of Alexander the Great and other foreign powers has left a genetic imprint on the ancient Egyptian population,” explains Verena Schuenemann, group leader at the University of Tuebingen and one of the lead authors of this study, in a statement.
Strikingly, despite going through various periods of foreign rules, from the Roman Empire to Macedonia, the Egyptian population remained relatively unaffected genetically during the 1,300-year timespan. At the same time, the data suggests modern Egyptians share approximately 8% more ancestry on the nuclear level with Sub-Saharan African populations than with ancient Egyptians.

“This suggests that an increase in Sub-Saharan African gene flow into Egypt occurred within the last 1,500 years,” explains Stephan Schiffels, group leader at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Jena.

It’s amazing to finally hear about genetic investigations in ancient Egyptian mummies. Seemingly against all odds, science yet again proves that sometimes we must merely wait for technology to catch on with our needs. In the process, we now have a much richer understanding of Egypt’s population history.

A child mummy from 17th century Lithuania bears the first evidence of variola, the virus that causes smallpox. Credit: Kiril Cachovski/Lithuanian Mummy Project.

Mummified child found in 17th century Lithuanian crypt might crack the mystery of smallpox virus

A child mummy from 17th century Lithuania bears the first evidence of variola, the virus that causes smallpox. Credit: Kiril Cachovski/Lithuanian Mummy Project.

A child mummy from 17th century Lithuania bears the first evidence of variola, the virus that causes smallpox. Credit: Kiril Cachovski/Lithuanian Mummy Project.

The earliest infected person with smallpox we know of is a child who lived in Lithuania around 1665. The mummified remains were discovered in a crypt under a church and inside the tissue, researchers found smallpox DNA which they sequenced. The findings suggest that smallpox originated far earlier than previously believed.

A sneaky virus

Thanks to global vaccination efforts, smallpox was completely eradicated in the 1970s. Before the advent of vaccines, however, the virus killed millions of people. When European settlers first arrived in North and South America, they simply plowed through the native populations aided by the new disease they brought with them.

Today, the virus can only be found in safely stored containers in labs around the world. Yet, despite the fact that smallpox has been eradicated, we still don’t know the whole picture, like where it came from.

Most viral infections originate in animals. For instance, HIV/AIDS originated from chimps and other primates and is thought to have first infected humans at least a century ago. The origin of Ebola and Zika can also be traced to primates and monkeys. Malaria comes from mosquitoes while swine-flu is self-explanatory. Smallpox, however, seems to be a ‘human thing’. It infects no other animal and if it did appear first in an animal (other types of pox do, like camelpox) we don’t know who that animal is.

“Scientists don’t yet fully comprehend where smallpox came from and when it jumped into humans,” says evolutionary geneticist Hendrik Poinar, senior author of the study, director of the McMaster Ancient DNA Centre and a researcher with Michael G. DeGroote Institute of Infectious Disease Research. “This research raises some interesting possibilities about our perception and age of the disease.”

Poinar and colleagues were on the lookout for ancient pathogens that lurk across the millions of Medieval tombs. They weren’t specifically looking for smallpox, but were very happy they found it in such old remains. It’s the earliest evidence of smallpox anyone has found.

After they sequenced the virus’ DNA and determined its age, they compared the genome to those of more recent strains collected in the 1940s to 1970s. The phylogenetic analysis can trace evolutionary mutations back in time to the earliest common ancestor, essentially offering an estimate of when the virus first surfaced.

This photograph of a smallpox victim appeared in the Baltimore Health News in 1939 as a warning to people who had not been vaccinated. Credit: Chapin Library of Rare Books, Williams College.

This photograph of a smallpox victim appeared in the Baltimore Health News in 1939 as a warning to people who had not been vaccinated. Credit: Chapin Library of Rare Books, Williams College.

Previously, scientists used to believe smallpox first appeared thousands of years ago. Some have pointed to other mummies from ancient Egypt which bear pockmark scars. It wasn’t ever very clear because those marks could have been made by measles or chicken pox.

The new study establishes a much finer timeline of the virus’ origin. The analysis suggests the common ancestor to all strains of smallpox first appeared sometime between 1588 and 1645, as reported in Current Biology. It doesn’t seem like a coincidence that this period was marked by many smallpox outbreaks around Europe.

“This study sets the clock of smallpox evolution to a much more recent time-scale” said evolutionary biologist Eddie Holmes, a professor at the University of Sydney, Australia. “Although it is still unclear what animal is the true reservoir of smallpox virus and when the virus first jumped into humans.”

It’s likely that other strains of the smallpox-causing virus were live and kicking earlier than the one that infected the 17th-century child. To wind the clock even further back, scientists need to investigate more tombs — the older the better.

This is no mere scientific inquiry. Though smallpox is officially eradicated, it’s possible it can resurface. If it does, we need to be prepared to throw everything we have at it. Knowing how the virus, and others like it, first appeared will be extremely important.

“While smallpox was eradicated in human populations, we can’t become lazy or apathetic about its evolution — and possible reemergence — until we fully understand its origins,” says Ana Duggan, a post doctoral fellow in the McMaster Ancient DNA Centre.”



Forensic experts reconstruct the face of a 2,300 year old Egyptian mummy

University of Melbourne researchers can now show you what ancient Egyptians looked like. They created a 3D-printed replica skull from CT scans of a mummy’s head and forensic reconstruction techniques to bring it back to life.

Reconstruction of an Egyptian woman cca. 300 BC.
Image credits Jennifer Mann/Paul Burston/University of Melbourne

A short while ago, researchers reconstructed the face of a woman who lived in Bronze Age England. Now, Australian researchers from the University of Melbourne brought the face of an even older culture back to life. Not just awesome, but educational too — the team says this reconstruction will teach students about diagnosing pathologies in former populations.

“The idea of the project is to take this relic and, in a sense, bring her back to life by using all the new technology,” said team member Varsha Pilbrow.

“This way she can become much more than a fascinating object to be put on display. Through her, students will be able to learn how to diagnose pathology marked on our anatomy, and learn how whole population groups can be affected by the environments in which they live.”

The mummy — just a wrapped head, severed from the body — was actually found by accident in the university’s collections area by a curator performing an audit. The team thinks it was brought here by Frederic Wood Jones, an archaeologist turned anatomy professor who taught there in the early 1900s.

“Her face is kept upright because it is more respectful that way,” said museum curator Ryan Jefferies. “She was once a living person, just like all the human specimens we have preserved here, and we can’t forget that.”

Reconstructing the face was the only way to ensure that the mummy was preserved, as Jefferies grew concerned that the skull was beginning to rot from the inside out. Naturally, the team couldn’t just unwrap the head as this might have caused irreparable damage to the head. So, the team took a CT scan of the mummy to understand what was going on inside. Seeing the CT scan made them realize that this was a great forensic and teaching opportunity in collaborative research, according to Jefferies.

They enlisted the help of a team of forensic experts from Monash University to reconstruct the face starting from the skull. The Monash team reckoned that the mummy was female — the team named her Meritamun — and likely lived sometime around 300 BC. A more precise dating will soon be available once the skull is carbon dated.

Imaging specialist Gavan Mitchell was able to use a 3D printer to create an exact replica of the skull, which the team turned over to forensic sculptor Jennifer Mann. She painstakingly reconstructed the mummy’s face using clay and all of the data gathered by the forensic team.

The replica skull.
Image credits Varsha Pilbrow/Gavan Mitchell/University of Melbourne.

“It is incredible that her skull is in such good condition after all this time, and the model that Gavan produced was beautiful in its details,” Mann said. “It is really poignant work and extremely important for finally identifying these people who would otherwise have remained unknown.”

The final result is a fully reconstructed face, the closest we’ve come ever to seeing an ancient Egyptian woman.

The team hasn’t yet published their results in a peer-reviewed journal, so the technique still awaits proper scrutiny.

So while we wait, check out this video to see the reconstruction in action:


Real mummified monk found in 1,000-year-old Buddha statue

Using CT-scans, researchers at the Netherlands-based Drents Museum  imaged a mummified monk who lived 1,000 years ago inside a Buddha statue. Encased inside the golden cast, lie the the remains of Buddhist master Liuquan of the Chinese Meditation School. His organs were removed prior to becoming encased, which isn’t a surprise being a standard mummification practice. What was  surprising however were the rolls of paper scraps covered in Chinese writing which were placed where the organs used to sit.


Image: M. Elsevier Stokmans.

Is this just a case of someone taking Buddha’s saying “peace comes from within” way too literally? Apparently, this human relic isn’t alone. Great Buddhist masters are often mummified to help them reach the Buddha-state. Basically, the meditative practice continues following the master’s death. This is called Tukdam.   Sogyal Rinpoche describes it in The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying the process:

A realized practitioner continues to abide by the recognition of the nature of mind at the moment of death, and awakens into the Ground Luminosity when it manifests. He or she may even remain in that state for a number of days. Some practitioners and masters die sitting upright in that state for a number of days. Some practitioners and masters die sitting upright in meditation posture, and others in the “posture of the sleeping lion.” Besides their perfect poise, there will be other signs that show they are resting in the state of the Ground Luminosity: There is still a certain color and glow in their face, the nose does not sink inward, the skin remains soft and flexible, the body does not become stiff, the eyes are said to keep a soft and compassionate glow, and there is still a warmth at the heart. Great care is taken that the master’s body is not touched, and silence is maintained until he or she has arisen from this state of meditation.

monk mummified

Image: Jan van Esch / Meander Medisch Centrum

Earlier this year, another mummified monk in lotus position was found in Mongolia. According to forensic analysis, the remains which were preserved in animal skin are thought to be 200 years old. Again, the monk is claimed to be ‘not dead’ and is instead one stage away from becoming a real-life Buddha. Dr Barry Kerzin, a famous Buddhist monk and a physician to the Dalai Lama, said: ‘I had the privilege to take care of some meditators who were in a tukdam state.

‘If the person is able to remain in this state for more than three weeks – which rarely happens – his body gradually shrinks, and in the end all that remains from the person is his hair, nails, and clothes. Usually in this case, people who live next to the monk see a rainbow that glows in the sky for several days. This means that he has found a ‘rainbow body’. This is the highest state close to the state of Buddha’.

He added: ‘If the meditator can continue to stay in this meditative state, he can become a Buddha. Reaching such a high spiritual level the meditator will also help others, and all the people around will feel a deep sense of joy’.


Three Egyptian mummies receive CT scans

The Washington University received some unusual patients to scan: three Egyptian mummies.

Curators and radiologists examine the mummy of Pet-Menekh on Sunday, Oct. 12, at Washington University Medical Center. From left are Lisa Çakmak, PhD, assistant curator of ancient art at Saint Louis Art Museum; Karen K. Butler, PhD, associate curator of Washington University’s Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum; Sanjeev Bhalla, MD, professor of radiology and chief of cardiothoracic imaging at the School of Medicine; and Vincent Mellnick, MD, a Washington University radiologist. Pet-Menekh was scanned in a computerized tomography (CT) scanner at the medical center.

The scanning took place Sunday, Oct. 12, at the Center for Advanced Medicine on the Medical Campus. The mummies, two of which are on long-term loan to the Saint Louis Art Museum from the Kemper Art Museum, were scanned using state-of-the-art CT scans.

CTs and mummies

According to Wikipedia, X-ray computed tomography (x-ray CT) is a technology that uses computer-processed x-rays to produce tomographic images (virtual ‘slices’) of specific areas of the scanned object. Basically, CT scans allow you to see “slices” of the inside of a human body without actually having to cut. It’s not the first time this technique has been used for archaeological purposes.

CT scanners use special equipment that emits a narrow X-ray beam to obtain images from different angles around the body, generating 3-D images that can show the skeleton, tissues and organs. Photo of scan: Robert Boston

The first scan revealed that the mummy still had its brain, heart and lungs; this is pretty unusual, because the heart and the lungs were usually taken out in Ancient Egypt’s mummification. The study also revealed that the mummy had several other objects in its head – but what they are is not clear. It may be something to do with the mummification technique, or it could simply be debris.

The second mummy revealed a much more gruesome truth. It appeared to be significantly shorter than the sarcophagus, and researchers quickly observed that it lacked a head. The head was probably removed when grave robbers ransacked his tomb. They found an item on his chest that may have been a burial amulet missed by grave robbers. They plan to reconstruct the item using 3-D printing.

Karen K. Butler, PhD, associate curator of the Kemper Art Museum, said Pet-Menekh and Henut-Wedjebu were donated to the university in 1896 by Charles Parsons, a St. Louis banker and prominent art collector. Since then, they pretty much became an important part of the University.

The computer adds color to the 3-D images to exaggerate differences in tissue. Photo of scan: Robert Boston

“The mummies have been part of Washington University for more than 100 years,” Butler said. “Faculty from anthropology, classics, art history and archaeology all take students to see them. They are very much part of university life.”

When the old meets the new

The use of CT scans in mummies has been used for over 20 years but the technology is developing all the time. Now, we are able to study them in much more detail, focusing and zooming in on any points of interest; this wouldn’t have been possible a couple of decades ago – and this is really important.

Mummies present archaeologists with an extremely rare opportunity – they are actually time capsules, giving clues of societies and life habits long gone. They can show us not only the life style and spiritual beliefs, but also a number of disease, habits and even general lifestyle. Cutting them open is not an option, as it would not only desecrate the memory of these people, but also possibly destroy unique cultural treasures. This is why non-invasive techniques are used in modern mummy research.

More than 2,000 years after his body was wrapped in bandages, the mummy of Pet-Menekh is eased into a state-of-the-art CT scanner at Washington University Medical Center. Photo: Robert Boston

For example, an indication of ancient lifestyle is artery hardening. Indicators of heart disease have been detected in prior mummy scans, but it’s not clear yet if this is reflective of the elite lifestyle – that is, if people rich enough to be mummified were more likely to suffer from heart disease.

Sanjeev Bhalla, MD, professor of radiology and chief of cardiothoracic imaging lead this study.

“This new CT scanner has higher spatial resolution and quickly can assemble slices in a variety of ways, providing more medical details about the mummies,” Bhalla said.

Logistically, the study was very difficult. They had to be removed from their display cases, and it wasn’t clear if each sarcophagus would fit in the machine, but they ultimately did. Also, there was the problem of being humane. Bhalla viewed this as the most challenging aspect.

“It was very important for us to remember that these were human beings we were scanning,” he said. “We had to do the scanning in an atmosphere of spiritual and physical respect, and with the help of museum staff who acted as a kind of surrogate family for the mummies, we did that.”


Mummies revealed that clogged arteries plagued the ancient world

You’d be tempted to think that clogged arteries are a problem of the modern world, with all the lack of exercise and unhealthy eating; but as ancient mummies revealed, even when we were hunter-gatherers, people still had arterial issues.

“There’s a belief that if we go back in time, everything’s going to be OK,” says cardiologist Greg Thomas of the University of California, Irvine, a senior member of the study team. “But these mummies still have coronary artery disease.” The paper is published in the current issue of The Lancet.

A lack of exercise and a diet rich in saturated fat — both of which increase levels of ‘bad’ cholesterol in the blood — are thought to increase the risk of plaque building up. These plaques are made up of cholesterol and immune cells called macrophages that can build up in arterial wall arteries. If this happens, the risk of heart attack and other cardiovascular diseases increases dramatically.

Thomas and his colleagues performed CT scans on 137 mummies from four very different ancient populations: Egyptian, Peruvian, the Ancestral Puebloans of southwest America and the Unangans of the Aleutian Islands in Alaska. Egyptian mummies were artificially embalmed, while the other ones were simply well preserved by very dry or cold conditions.


The four groups studied did not only live in very different areas, but they also had very different lifestyles. Ancestral Puebloans were forager–farmers, while Unangans were hunter–gatherers with an exclusively marine diet. Researchers were searching for calcified plaques in the wall of an artery or along the expected course of an artery. They successfully identified atherosclerosis in 47 (34%) of the 137 mummies, and in all four populations, ranging from 25% of the 51 ancient Peruvians to 60% of the five Unangans.

What’s extremely interesting about that is that the disease levels are about as big as modern ones, which comes as a big shock. However, despite the fact that elite people then ate a diet that resembles that of today’s gluttons, the cause for the disease may be different:

“Now we’ve scanned the common man and woman and they’ve got the same disease,” says Thomas. Rather than excess cholesterol, he suggests that high levels of inflammation — caused by smoke inhalation or chronic infection, for instance — may have triggered the disease in these individuals.

The study also puts modern cardiovascular diseases in perspective, as Thomas explains:

“We’ve oversold the ability to stop heart disease,” he says. “We can slow it down, but to think we can prevent it is unrealistic.”