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Wednesday, 28 November, 2001, 15:06 GMT
Peruvian mummies in TB surprise
It would seem the Spanish cannot be blamed for introducing tuberculosis to South America's indigenous populations.


We were surprised at the large percentage of mummies who had an infectious disease process in the spine and lungs which resembled tuberculosis

Gerald Conlogue, Quinnipiac University
A study of Peruvian mummies has found that at least one native tribe suffered from a disease very similar to TB long before the arrival of European settlers.

Scientists made the discovery when they examined the embalmed remains of the Chachapoyan people, who were entombed 500 to 1,000 years ago in caves along sheer cliffs high in the Peruvian Andes. The mummies were recovered in 1996.

"We were surprised at the large percentage of mummies who had an infectious disease process in the spine and lungs which resembled tuberculosis," said Gerald Conlogue, a bioanthropologist and diagnostic imaging expert at Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Connecticut, US.

"It was thought the Spanish conquerors brought TB to South America, and these mummies predate them," he added in a report delivered to the annual meeting of the Radiological Society of North America.

Hard labour

Gerald Conlogue took X-rays of more than 180 mummies from the Chachapoyan tribe and found 6% to show some form of infectious abnormality resembling TB.

He intends to back up this initial assessment by conducting autopsies on the ancient remains next July.

The X-rays also showed that 22% of the mummies had osteoarthritis of the spine, even though most of the dead were in their teens to early 40s when they died, and osteoarthritis is a degenerative joint disease which typically gets worse with age.

"It's an indication that these people worked hard, possibly carrying heavy loads up the mountain," Gerald Conlogue speculated.

"They must have done a large amount of heavy manual labour. They also had incredibly bad teeth with many cavities and periodontal disease. There was a lot of bone erosion, perhaps as a result of genetics or their diet," he said."

Makeshift dark room

Little is know about the Chachapoyan people. They were first studied 30 years ago, but they left no written record, and most of what we know about them today comes from Incan texts.

It is thought that Chachapoyan tribe members were great warriors who were eventually assimilated into the rival Incan culture.

The X-ray examination took place at a museum in the Andean village of Leymebamba, where the mummies are now kept.

Gerald Conlogue lugged a portable X-ray machine on a 40-hour bus ride to the village, which is sited 3,048 meters (10,000 feet) above sea level.

He hand-developed the film in a makeshift dark room of black plastic gardening sheets.

See also:

29 Nov 99 | Sci/Tech
Viral clue to American settlers
16 Apr 99 | Sci/Tech
Mountain mummy is baby
26 Aug 99 | Sci/Tech
'First Americans were Australian'
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