Scientific ‘detective work’ with South American mummies reveals they were brutally murdered

The Male Mummy of Marburg – macroscopic images of the whole mummy. Credits: AM Begerock, R Loynes, OK Peschel, J Verano, R Bianucci, I Martinez Armijo, M González, AG Nerlich

How common was violence in prehistoric human societies? One way to measure this is by looking for trauma in prehistoric human remains. For example, a recent review of pre-Columbian remains found evidence of trauma from violence in 21% of men. So far, most of these studies have focused on skulls and other parts of the skeleton, but a potentially richer source of information is mummies, with their preserved soft tissues.

Now in a new study in Limits in medicineresearchers are using 3D computed tomography (3D CT) to examine three mummies from pre-Columbian South America, which have been kept in European museums since the late 1800s.

“Here we show lethal trauma in two of the three South American mummies we examined with 3D-CT. The types of trauma we found would have been undetectable if these human remains had been mere skeletons,” said Dr. Andreas G Nerlich, a professor in the Department of Pathology at the Munich Clinic Bogenhausen in Germany, the study’s corresponding author.

Nerlich and colleagues studied a male mummy in the Museum Anatomicum of Philipps University Marburg, Germany, as well as a female and a male mummy at the Art and History Museum of Delémont, Switzerland. Mummies can form naturally when arid environments, such as in deserts, absorb fluids from a decomposing body faster than decay can occur — conditions common in the southern zones of South America.

Died between 740 and 1120 years ago

Marburg’s mummy belonged to the Arica culture in present-day northern Chile, and judging by the grave goods found with him, he must have lived in a fishing community. He was buried squatting and had well-preserved but misaligned teeth with some abrasions, typical of pre-Columbian people who used corn as a staple food. His lungs showed scars from previous severe tuberculosis. Based on the characteristics of the bones, the authors estimate that he was a young man between 20 and 25 years old, about 1.72 meters tall. He died between 996 and 1147 CE, as the radiocarbon results showed.

Delémont’s mummies probably came from the Arequipa region of present-day southwestern Peru, based on the ceramics among the grave goods. Both were buried lying down, which is unusual for mummies from the highlands of South America. Radiocarbon data showed that the man died between 902 and 994 CE, and the woman between 1224 and 1282 CE. They wore textiles woven from cotton and hair from llamas or alpacas, as well as vizcachas, rodents related to chinchillas. The condition of the aorta and large arteries showed that the man suffered from calcifying arteriosclerosis throughout his life.

Scientific 'detective work' reveals that South American mummies were brutally murdered

The “Delémont man” (right) and the “Delémont woman” (left) – overview of the two mummies in their storage box. Credits: AM Begerock, R Loynes, OK Peschel, J Verano, R Bianucci, I Martinez Armijo, M González, AG Nerlich

Two murder victims

The results show that both male mummies had died on the spot due to extreme deliberate violence. The authors reconstructed that Marburg’s mummy had died because either “an attacker hit the victim in the head with full force and [a] second attacker stab[bed] the victim (who was still standing or kneeling) in the back. Alternatively, the same or another attacker standing to the victim’s right hit the head and then turned to the victim’s back and stabbed him.”

Likewise, the male mummy from Delémont showed “massive trauma to the cervical spine, which stands for”[s] most likely the cause of death. The significant dislocation of the two cervical vertebral bodies itself is fatal and may have resulted in instant death.”

Only the female mummy had died of natural causes. She also showed extensive damage to the skeleton, but this happened after death, probably during the funeral and not on purpose.

Scientific 'detective work' reveals that South American mummies were brutally murdered

3D CT scan of the skull of the male mummy Délémont. (ad): Features of perimortem skull trauma on the left side of the skull with a large perforating lesion in the left temporal region (arrow) and a fracture running into the skull. (d) shows the zygomatic fracture of the left side (arrows). Credits: AM Begerock, R Loynes, OK Peschel, J Verano, R Bianucci, I Martinez Armijo, M González, AG Nerlich

Nerlich said: “The availability of modern CT scans with the capability for 3D reconstructions offers a unique insight into bodies that would otherwise have gone undetected. Previous studies would have either destroyed the mummy, while X-rays or older CT scans lack three-dimensional reconstruction features. could not have detected the diagnostic key functions we found here.

“Importantly, the study of human mummified material can reveal a much higher number of traumas, especially intentional traumas, than the study of skeletons. There are dozens of South American mummies that could benefit from a similar study to the one here.”


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More information:
Trauma to bone and soft tissues in South American mummies – new cases offer more insight into violence and deadly consequences, Limits in medicine (2022). DOI: 10.3389/fmed.2022.962793

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