Feature: Mummies can yield disease clues

By STEVE MITCHELL, UPI Medical Correspondent  |  Oct. 27, 2002 at 11:00 AM
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Mummies long have been a staple of Halloween costumes but the ancient practice of mummification of the dead can offer us clues and insights about contemporary ills such as heart disease and cancer, researchers told United Press International.

Scientists from the University of Hawaii plan to head for Egypt soon to study a recently discovered burial site that contains thousands of mummies, whose origins range from the third century B.C. to the third century A.D. The team will use computed axial tomography or CAT scans to collect internal information from these ancient people that they hope will give them a better understanding of the types of diseases prevalent during that time, said F. DeWolfe Miller, a professor of epidemiology and public health at the university.

The burial site, discovered in 1996, is located at the oasis of Bahariya 250 miles southwest of Cairo.

"We don't really know how many tombs and mummies are out there but it's in the thousands, some have estimated it's in the tens of thousands," Miller told UPI.

Miller and his colleagues are the only foreign nationals allowed access to these mummies and he attributes this to his close friendship with Zahi Hawass, secretary general of Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities. Hawass, who is excavating the site, controls access to the mummies. "We are there at his invitation to assist him," Miller said, noting he was surprised to get the invitation because although he studies the public health of current-day Egypt he has not worked previously with the mummies.

The Egyptian government is very sensitive about the disturbance of its ancestors, Miller said, and that is the primary reason for using the CAT scan, which is akin to taking an X-ray. It is non-invasive and allows them to collect vast amounts of information about the mummies' health status with "near zero impact," he said. A CAT scan generates a three-dimensional image of internal organs and tissues.

The scans will give the researchers information on life expectancy, gender, cause of death and height and weight, Robert Littman, a professor of classical languages, ancient history and archaeology and a member of the project team, told UPI.

One disease they plan to examine closely is heart disease. There is a debate over whether this is a modern disease caused by modern diets or whether it existed in ancient societies, said Littman who is an expert on medical history. With the CAT scans, "we will be able to see calcium deposits in arteries (an indicator of heart disease) and see if it existed among this ancient population," he said.

They also will be looking at other diseases including cancer and tuberculosis, Miller said. Another disease of interest is schistosomiasis -- a disease spread by a worm. This is a disease seen in present-day Egypt "but it is also known to have occurred in ancient Egypt," he said.

Researchers have used CAT scans and X-rays before to examine mummies but "the major difference in what we're doing ... is this is the first study that is going to look at an entire population," Littman said. Previous studies were only looking at one or two isolated mummies. Examining an entire community will allow them "to establish general patterns of health and disease in this ancient population" that cannot be done with only one or two specimens, he said.

The burial site will allow the researchers to gain a clear understanding of disease across the different classes of ancient Egyptian society. "Mummification in this period was done by anyone who wanted to do it so (the burial site contains) the poor, the middle class, the wealthy," Littman said

The CAT scans also could yield clues about the oral health of these ancient people. "Dental problems were a big killer, relative to today," Miller said.

"That population had enormous dental problems that got infected and caused abscesses," which led to widespread infection and at the time were untreatable and often fatal, Littman said. The data they collect will help determine just how prevalent and serious this problem was.

Marvin Allison, a pathologist at the Medical College of Virginia who has been studying diseases in ancient Peruvian mummies for 35 years, told UPI the Hawaii team probably will not uncover any new diseases.

The ancient mummies "had everything that people have today," Allison said, adding he has performed more than 3,000 autopsies on mummies and "we have not come up with any new disease." He said he plans soon to publish a recent finding he made of hepatitis C in a 3,000 year-old mummy in Peru. The virus previously was thought to have originated in recent decades, he said.

The study of diseases in ancient people is important, Allison said, because it allows researchers to put together a history of diseases. In the case of the Peruvian mummies, researchers can obtain a picture of the types of diseases most common in the Americas and the Egyptian mummies can yield insight into diseases present in Africa and the Mediterranean area, he said.

In addition to disease insights, the research will allow investigators to determine if these people suffered injuries consistent with trauma or violence, David Hunt, a physical anthropologist at the Smithsonian's Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., told UPI.

Hunt, who has used CAT scans on mummies, explained researchers can look to see if the results of the scans coincide with written history. "This will give you a better understanding of what life was like," he said. "The writings were written for the upper echelon of society ... the pharaohs," so they may not truly reflect what was going on in the life of common folk. Studies like these offer a glimpse into "what life was like for the regular people," he said.

Miller and Littman said they hope to begin preliminary work on this project in December and start doing the CAT scans in May. The schedule hinges on the approval of a grant from the National Science Foundation, which they expect to receive in the next couple of months.

Miller added his team might seek out other sources of public and private support for the project.

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