Surprise virus in child mummy unravels thousands of years of disease history
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From the pockmarked mummified pharaohs of ancient Egypt to the epic triumph of complete global eradication, smallpox had a remarkable history. But that lengthy history may be in for a massive revision, thanks to a little mummy found in the crypt of a Lithuanian church.
The mummy, thought to be of a child between the ages of two and four who died sometime between 1643 and 1665, teemed with the genetic remains of the bygone virus. That smallpox DNA was the oldest ever found—yet it was quite young, evolutionarily speaking. In fact, genetic analysis of the preserved smallpox blueprints, published Thursday in Current Biology, suggests that smallpox is just hundreds of years old, not millennia as many had thought. The finding stands to rewrite the virus' storied past.
Reports of blistering, puss-packed rashes have speckled historical records for thousands of years. The dimpled pharaohs and spotted plagues in China during the 4th century were considered proof that the smallpox virus—aka Variola—plagued humankind for a long, long time. Smallpox caused massive outbreaks throughout Europe in the 17 th century and devastated populations in the New World. But, in 1796, it became the first disease for which there was a vaccine. And in 1979, smallpox was declared the first—and still only—infectious disease of humans to be globally eradicated. (Rinderpest, an infectious disease of cattle and some other animals, has also been eradicated.)
The latter part of smallpox's history is still solid, thankfully. But the ancient past may crumble to dust.
The study in Current Biology, led by researchers at McMaster University in Canada, came to the historically startling conclusion by piecing together the entire, crumbling genome of the virus collected from the Lithuanian mummy's skin—which was not pocked, oddly. To their surprise, the smallpox of the mid 17 th century looked very similar to smallpox from the 20 th .
The researchers next created an evolutionary family tree of the old smallpox with 42 younger relatives, plus ancient ancestors. (The other smallpox strains had been sequenced previously for research purposes from preserved isolates.) The tree revealed the pace at which the smallpox virus evolved. Knowing that rate, the researchers calculated backward to figure out when smallpox first came into existence, pegging the killer's birth to sometime between 1530 and 1654.
That's just in time for it to cause the large outbreaks in Europe during the 17 th century and wreak havoc in the New World. But 1530 is long, long time after the Chinese reports and the scarred pharaohs. The authors argue that these ancient cases could easily have been misidentified cases of other rash-causing diseases.
In a press statement, co-author Henrik Poinar, the director of the Ancient DNA Centre at McMaster, said:
So now that we have a timeline, we have to ask whether the earlier documented historical evidence of smallpox, which goes back to Ramses V and includes everything up to the 1500s, is real. Are these indeed real cases of smallpox or are these misidentifications, which we know is very easy to do, because it is likely possible to mistake smallpox for chickenpox and measles?
To settle the issue, more research is necessary, of course. In particular, Poinar and his colleagues hope to track down when exactly in the 16 th or 17 th century smallpox appeared in humans and from where it came. A variety of pox viruses circulate in animals, but it’s unclear which one jumped to humans and what animal it was in before.
16th-Century Child Mummy Had Oldest Known Case of Hepatitis B
Some 500 years ago, a two year old died, and its remains were laid in a crypt of the Basilica of Saint Domenico Maggiore in Naples, Italy. There it lay for hundreds of years, the body slowly mummifying in the dry conditions of the basilica.
In the 1980s, researchers examined the remains, diagnosing the child with the earliest known case of small pox. But a new genomic test tells a different story. As Nicholas St. Fleur at The New York Times reports, the child may actually have oldest known case of hepatitis B.
As Ed Cara at Gizmodo reports, when the child mummy was autopsied in the 1980s, researchers noted a rash across the child's body that was consistent with small pox. Electron microscope scans also seemed to show the oval-shaped Variola virus indicative of the disease.
But in 2016, researchers examining another case of ancient small pox, found in a sixteenth-century Lithuanian mummy, decided to reexamine the Maggiore mummy with the hopes of studying how the disease evolved over time, St. Fleur reports. They sequenced the mummy's DNA and examined it, but found no trace of the smallpox virus. Instead, they discovered a fragment of hepatitis.
Further study of the mummy helped researchers realize that the rash or dots on the child’s face could have been caused by Gianotti-Crosti syndrome, one of the potential symptoms of hepatitis B (HBV). They published their work last week in the journal PLOS Pathogens.
According to the Centers for Disease control, some 350 million people currently live with the virus. Up to one-third of humans will be infected during their lifetime, according to the press release. The virus infects the liver and is spread by contact with blood and bodily fluids of infected people. Long term infections, known as chronic HBV, can cause lasting liver damage. But there is still much to learn about the history of this disease and the new study is uncovering clues to its complex past.
In the five centuries since the HBV infected the child in Naples, the virus had barely evolved, according to a press release. The find is surprising since most viruses evolve quickly, sometimes even in mere days. This could be a sign of contamination, St. Fleur reports. But a year and a half of validation work suggests that the virus is indeed as old as the rest of the mummy DNA and is unlikely a relic of contamination.
The researchers also analyzed the HBV virus using other ancient strains of the disease, discovering that indeed it does evolve incredibly slowly, barely changing in 500 years. Hendrik Poinar , an evolutionary geneticist with the McMaster Ancient DNA Centre and co-author of the study tells St. Fleur it is still possible the virus is contamination, but he says the odds are it's not. “I’m 80-20 at this point, or maybe 90-10, that it’s not contamination,” he says.
The fact that Hep B hasn’t evolved makes sense, study co-author Edward Holmes tells Rachel Becker at The Verge. “HBV is a very unusual virus,” he says, pointing out that its DNA is short and rigid, and that mutations often just disable the virus. “On the one hand this makes the virus very small and efficient but on the other it means that very few mutations actually work.”
So why is it important to figure out the history of diseases like smallpox and hepatitis? “The more we understand about the behavior of past pandemics and outbreaks, the greater our understanding of how modern pathogens might work and spread, and this information will ultimately help in their control,” Poinar says in the press release.
As anyone suffering from this winter’s influenza (which is part of a major global flu outbreak this year) may bemoan, medical science doesn’t have a firm grasp on how viruses evolve and which ones will infect humans. The consequences can be dire. One hundred years ago, in 1918, up to 100 million people died in the worst flu outbreak in human history. While living conditions and healthcare have gotten much better since then, humanity is still vulnerable to fast-moving, virulent pathogens.
Yet studies like this latest work will help in the battle, teasing through the history—and eventually helping to anticipate the future—of such viruses. As Lizzie Wade at Smithsonian Magazine reported in March last year, the Lithuanian mummy—another child who died of smallpox—suggests that smallpox is relatively new. Researchers had long believed even Egyptian mummies suffered from smallpox, but "molecular clock” studies suggest the disease didn't arise till the sixteenth or seventeenth century. Earlier cases may have been the result of a different scourge.
Only with better understanding of these diseases will we be able to protect ourselves from future outbreaks.
Editor's Note 1/9/2018: This article was corrected to note that winter influenza cases (not cases of stomach flu) are part of this year's global flu problems.
About Jason Daley
Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.
10 Oldest Mummies in the World
Mummies are a staple of modern popular culture and are often featured in fictional works of horror. While there has never been any stories of real mummies reanimating, examination of their bodies does provide significant insight into the past. By studying these mummies, we know what they ate, how they spent the last few days of their life, their medical history, and even their cause of death.
Most of the oldest mummies ever discovered were naturally preserved by such factors as arid dessert heat, mud, or layers of thick ice. The oldest intentionally mummified people were found in South America and date back to about 5000 BCE, thousands of years before Egyptians started preserving their dead.
10. Ramesses II
Year of Death: 1213 BCE
Location: Valley of the Kings, Thebes, Egypt
Year Discovered: 1881
photo source: Wikimedia Commons
Ramesses II, also known as Ramesses the Great, is often considered to be the greatest, most powerful, and most celebrated Pharaoh of the Ancient Egyptian Empire. He was the third Pharaoh of Egypt’s 19 th Dynasty and ruled from 1279 – 1213 BCE.
Ramesses II was originally buried in a tomb in the Valley of the Kings, but was later transferred (because of looting) by priests to the tomb of Queen Inhapy. His body was moved again three days later to the tomb of high priest Pinudjem II – this story is inscribed on the linen covering his body. During examinations of Ramessess II’s body, researchers discovered that he was originally a red head and that he had arthritis, which caused him to walk with a hunched back toward the end of his life.
9. King Tutankhamun
Year of Death: 1323 BCE
Location: Valley of the Kings, Thebes, Egypt
Year Discovered: 1922
photo source: Wikimedia Commons
The discovery of King Tutankhamun‘s (commonly called King Tut) tomb is one of the most famous archaeological finds of the modern era. His tomb is one of the most intact ever found and it has produced more than 5,398 artifacts. Since Tutankhamun’s tomb and body were well-preserved, researchers have been able to learn much about royal burials, mummification, and the tombs of Ancient Egypt’s 18 th Dynasty.
Since not much was initially known about Tutankhamun’s death, there has been several conspiracy theories proposed that have infiltrated popular culture through movies, TV, and fictional books. However, researchers believe that Tutankhamun’s death was unexpected and accidental, which explains why no records exist about his death and why his burial chamber was small for a Pharaoh.
8. Egtved Girl
Year of Death: c.1370 BCE
Location: Egtved, Denmark
Year Discovered: 1921
photo source: Wikimedia Commons
The Egtved Girl is a well-known mummy from Denmark, which was buried in a well-preserved coffin that was uncovered in 1921. Although the tree-trunk coffin was well-preserved, the girl’s bones did not survive and only her clothing, hair, nails, and some teeth were in good condition. Also inside of her coffin were the cremated remains of a child that was about 5 or 6 years old.
Historians believe that the young lady was a priestess of a Scandinavian sun cult because of the spiral symbols on her belt. More recent research has revealed that the girl was not originally from Denmark, but was from the Black Forest in Germany. It is believed that she may have married a chieftain in Denmark to form a strategic alliance.
7. Amenhotep I
Year of Death: 1506 BCE
Location: Deir el-Bahari, Egypt
Year Discovered: Unknown
photo source: Wikimedia Commons
The mummy of Amenhotep I is unique and features one of the most exquisite and well-preserved face masks of any royal Egyptian mummy. Since the face mask is so delicate and beautiful, Amenhotep I is the only royal mummy who has not been unwrapped and studied by modern Egyptologists. Amehotep I was the second Pharaoh of Egypt’s 18 th Dynasty.
He ruled from about 1526 BCE until his death in 1506 BCE. Sometime during the 20 th (1189 BCE–1077 BCE) or 21 st (1069 BCE to 945 BCE) Dynasty, Amenhotep I’s mummy was moved from its original resting place (which is unknown) to the Deir el-Bahri Cache and hidden with other royal mummies from Egypt’s New Kingdom time period.
6. Lady Rai
Year of Death: c.1530 BCE
Location: Thebes, Egypt
Year Discovered: 1881
photo source: Wikimedia Commons
Lady Rai is one of the oldest known mummies uncovered in Egypt. She was discovered in 1881 and researchers estimate that she was about 30 – 40 years old when she died around 1530 BCE. From the writings left behind about Lady Rai, we know that she was the nursemaid to Queen Ahmose-Nefertari, who was the first Queen of the 18 th Dynasty of Ancient Egypt. The mummified body of Ahmose Inhapy, the aunt of Ahmose-Nefertari was found in Lady Rai’s outer coffin.
In 2009, researchers conducted a CAT scan of Lady Rai’s body and discovered that she had atherosclerosis. She is the oldest known mummy with the disease and several other Egyptian mummies also show signs of atherosclerosis.
5. Ötzi the Iceman
Year of Death: c.3300 BCE
Location: Ötztal Alps, near Hauslabjoch on the border between Austria and Italy
Year Discovered: 1991
photo source: Wikimedia Commons
photo source: Wikimedia Commons
Ötzi the Iceman is one of the most famous mummies in the world. His accidental discovery in 1991 by two German tourists on a hike immediately drew worldwide media coverage. Since he was recovered from the Ötztal Alps, which he’s named after, he has been extensively studied. Due to the location of his death, Ötzi’s body was well-preserved by the ice.
Through different tests, we now know several things about Ötzi: he has living relatives who share a common ancestor that lived 10,000 – 12,000 years ago he had over 50 tattoos across his body he had anatomical abnormalities as well as several health problems and his diet consisted of pollen and goats. In 2012, scientists were able to extract red blood cells from Ötzi’s body.
4. Gebelein Man (“Ginger”)
Year of Death: c.3400 BCE
Location: Gebelein (now called Naga el-Gherira), Egypt
Year Discovered: 1896
photo source: Wikimedia Commons
The Gebelein Man is the most well-known of the six naturally mummified bodies discovered in graves near Gebelein (now called Naga el-Gherira), Egypt. The Gebelein Man was the first uncovered at the site in 1896 and since 1901, the body has been displayed at the British Museum. The mummy was nicknamed Ginger because of its visibly red hair.
In 2012, new research revealed that the Gebelein Man was probably murdered. Researchers have always noted the wound on the surface of the mummies skin, but did not discover how damaged his body was until they conducted a digital autopsy. They discovered that his shoulder blade as well as the rib under that shoulder blade were damaged, which suggests he died a violent death.
3. Tashwinat Mummy
Year of Death: c.3500 – 3300 BCE
Location: Uan Muhuggiag archaeological site in Libya
Year Discovered: 1958
photo source: mummipedia.wikia.com
The Tashwinat Mummy found at the Uan Muhuggiag archaeological site in Libya is between 5,400 – 5,600 years old. The age of the mummy is significant because it predates any of the mummies found in neighboring Egypt. It was discovered by Professor Fabrizio Mori in 1958.
The mummy is a small child, about 3 years old, that was found in the fetal position. The body was embalmed, carefully wrapped with leaves, and covered by an antelope skin its entrails were replaced with wild herbs to help with its preservation.
The Tashiwnat Mummy is currently the oldest known mummy from Africa. Since its discovery, researchers now believe that mummification in Africa did not start in Egypt, but probably elsewhere in the continent by an unknown civilization.
2. Chinchorro Mummies
Year of Death: 7020 BCE (oldest one named Acha Man) – 3000 BCE
Location: Northern Chile and southern Peru.
Sex: Males and Females
Year Discovered: 1917
photo source: Wikimedia Commons
The Chinchorro Mummies are considered to be some of the oldest mummies in the world. Since they were first discovered in 1917, over 282 mummies have been uncovered at burial sites along the narrow coastal strip from Ilo in southern Peru to Antofagasta in northern Chile.
About 29 percent of the mummies were naturally preserved, including the oldest mummy in the group, the Acha Man. Around 5000 BCE, the Chinchorro people began purposely mummifying their dead, about 2,000 years before the Egyptians started the practice. The Chinchorro continued to preserve their dead until about 3000 BCE and developed three distinct styles of mummification – black, red, and mud-coated.
1. Spirit Cave Mummy
Year of Death: 9,400 years ago
Location: Spirit Cave, Fallon, Nevada
Year Discovered: 1940
photo source: friendsofpast.org
The Spirit Cave Mummy is the oldest known mummy in the world. It was first discovered in 1940 by Sydney and Georgia Wheeler, a husband and wife archaeological team. The Spirit Cave Mummy was naturally preserved by the heat and aridity of the cave it was found in.
The Pedro Mountain Mummy
A celebrity might have a brief career, or be famous for decades, even living on in public memory after death. But has an infant ever achieved this status?
The Pedro Mountain Mummy was discovered in June 1934 by two gold prospectors in the Pedro Mountains approximately 60 miles southwest of Casper, Wyo. Contrary to the mythology of the nearly eight decades that have passed since its discovery, the mummy was almost certainly a human baby, not a tiny adult from the Pliocene Epoch or from the race of Little People of American Indian lore.
Photographs and a signed affidavit leave little doubt that the discovery itself was real. The affidavit, dated Nov. 13, 1936 and signed by Cecil Main, one of the prospectors, states that the mummy was "found in a sealed cave, on a rock ledge about two and one half feet from the ground…there was nothing else in the cave." The affidavit further states that the mummy was "now owned by Homer F. Sherrill, and located in the Field Museum in Chicago, Illinois." The affidavit was sworn in Scotts Bluff County, Neb., and subsequently recorded in Hot Springs County, Wyo., on Aug. 16, 1943.
From the time of its discovery until it was lost in 1950, the mummy traveled a path that will probably never be possible to document fully. An article by Penelope Purdy in the Casper Star-Tribune dated July 21, 1979, states that the two prospectors "took the mummy back to Casper with them as a curiosity. Although they were ridiculed for perpetrating a hoax, the body made the rounds of local sideshows in a glass bottle. . . ."
Lou Musser wrote in a March 30, 1950, article for the Casper Tribune-Herald that the mummy for years “has been the center of much controversy locally." Musser notes that before it was purchased by Ivan Goodman, a Casper businessman, it was displayed by a prior owner in the Jones Drugstore in Meeteetse, Wyo. Although Musser does not name either the Meeteetse owner's name nor the price Goodman paid, Purdy mentions a selling price of "several thousand dollars." In a related article dated July 24, 1979, Purdy names the Meeteetse owner, Floyd Jones.
If the affidavit was dated in the same year as the discovery, both Purdy's 1979 article, as well as Musser's from 1950, have errors. Purdy states that the mummy was found in October 1932, according to "local legend." Musser reports that a sheepherder discovered it, naming no date.
To further confuse matters, an Oct. 21, 1977 newspaper article, "McAuley's Wyoming," also from the Casper Star-Tribune and obviously written somewhat tongue-in-cheek, claims, "Goodman…said he bought the Pedro Mountain Man from the sheepherder." This article also mentions that the sheepherder discovered it. This mythical sheepherder is not named in any of the articles that refer to him.
Even the sworn claim that the mummy was at the Field Museum is open to question. Archivist Armand Esai notes that the Field Museum has no record of the mummy's presence during that time. The item still could have been there on loan or for identification, but because it was not part of the museum's official collection, the mummy was not listed in the records.
Thus, facts discovered after the recording of the affidavit are sketchy, but Ivan Goodman's ownership by 1950 is certain. This was confirmed by his son Dixon Goodman of Casper. The elder Goodman took the mummy to Dr. Harry Shapiro, curator of biological anthropology at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. Shapiro examined it, took X-rays and sent the films around that time to George Gill, then professor of biological anthropology at the University of Wyoming.
Gill has confirmed that he received those X-rays and that he and Shapiro agreed that the mummy was almost certainly a human baby, either stillborn or dead shortly after birth. This child probably died of anencephaly, the congenital absence of a large part of the brain.
Later in 1950, when Goodman traveled to New York a second time, he took the mummy to a man named in three articles as Leonard Wadler: Purdy's July 24, 1979 article, mentioned above, plus another by her dated Oct. 9, 1990 and one by John Bonar in the 62nd Annual Wyoming Chronicle, dated March 23, 1980. Bonar adds that a Casper librarian "claims that…Wadler…acquired…[the mummy] for study…" All three articles state that shortly after taking the mummy to Wadler, Goodman was taken ill and died. The mummy was never returned to Goodman's family, and has not been seen again.
This absence of 63 years has not daunted mummy-seekers nor believers in little people or in human pygmy lore. Well before 1950, the sensational press had begun, exemplified by an Aug. 17, 1941, Milwaukee Journal article, "Did a Race of Pygmies Once Live in America?" According to this account, the mummy was a tiny man, 65 years old at the time of death. This seems to have been the consensus before the findings of Shapiro and Gill.
The Milwaukee Journal stated, "discernible by X-ray is the food in the stomach, which appears to have been raw meat. The teeth in the front of the mouth are pointed and of the flesh-eating variety." More compelling yet is the groan of despair supposedly uttered by one of the gold prospectors, upon finding the mummy: "'The curse of the Pedro Chain is upon us. Looks like our number is up. . . .'"
Like the child's game where everyone sits in a circle and whispers into his neighbor's ear the words he thought he heard whispered into his own ear, the story continued to change and grow. For example, In "Wyoming's Mystery Mummy," a chapter in Stranger Than Science, published in 1959, author Frank Edwards observes that the mummy's "twisted lips [were] set in a sardonic half grin." This author also repeats the incorrect discovery date of October 1932.
Wyoming history enthusiast Robert David, in a March 11, 1962 Casper Tribune-Herald and Star article, also reports the find date as October 1932. David cites the Pedro Mountain Mummy as a source of "present knowledge of…little people," recounting several legends told by old Shoshone and Arapaho chiefs. One legend states that "…a large mob of pygmies…attacked us viciously, and threatened to kill us all."
An Internet article, "Little People and the Pedro Mountain Mummy," explains that many believe little people are legends, names the Pedro Mountain Mummy and refers to Shoshone legends that contain the belief that little people attack "with tiny bows and poisoned arrows."
The mummy, if it ever turns up again, would be subject to the Native American Graves and Repatriation Act as it is almost certainly the body of an American Indian child taken from a grave. NAGPRA, as the act is called, provides a process for the return of certain American Indian cultural items, including human remains and funerary objects, to the lineal descendants or culturally affiliated tribes whenever possible, and particularly when the items were found unexpectedly on federal land, as is most likely the case here.
In the early 1990s, interest in the mummy remained strong. A popular episode of the television series, Unsolved Mysteries, filmed in 1994, featured the story and included an interview with Dr. Gill. As a result, a Wyoming rancher brought him another mummy, which was found in 1929 or thereabouts in the Pedro Mountain area. Gill sent it to the Denver Children's Hospital and also examined it himself, obtaining X-rays, a DNA sample and a radiocarbon date. These results, Gill said, "confirmed everything that I had ever thought” about the Pedro Mountain Mummy, including the diagnosis of anencephaly.
Is the Pedro Mountain Mummy gone for good? It seems likely, and with no immediate prospect of testing and study, those carried away by myths and speculation will continue in the spirit of Irish poet William Allingham's The Fairies:
Up the airy mountain,
Down the rushy glen,
We daren’t go a-hunting
For fear of little men.
Modern Technology Reveals Baby Mummy's Past
ST. LOUIS (AP) -- The baby mummy had a European mom, and likely came from a wealthy family. But where he lived and why he died -- and at such a young age -- remain a mystery. The mummy, exhibited for the first time Thursday at the Saint Louis Science Center, has been the year-long focus of an international team of investigators. The museum said it may be the most extensive research project ever undertaken on a child mummy.
Acquired by a Hermann, Mo., dentist at the turn of the century in the Middle East, the mummy ended up in an attic of some of his relatives, before being donated to the Science Center in 1985.
It sat in a museum warehouse until Al Wiman joined the Science Center as vice president two years ago and suggested that modern medical technology could unlock its secrets.
He spearheaded efforts to get medical, science and art institutions in St. Louis, the U.S., and Egypt to discover the mummy's past.
"I saw the possibility of a scientific paper,'' said Wiman, who spent 30 years as a medical and science reporter for St. Louis television stations.
A team of radiologists and geneticists from Washington University studied the mummy. Salima Ikram, an Egyptologist and mummy specialist at The American University in Cairo anthropologist Dean Falk at Florida State University and conservator Emilia Cortes of The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York also agreed to help.
A small snippet of the mummy's wrapping tested for carbon dating suggested the child had lived between 30 B.C. and 130 A.D., in Egypt's Roman period around the time of Mark Antony and Cleopatra.
Three-dimensional images from CT scans of the child's bones, skull, teeth and body cavity suggested the child lived to be seven or eight months. The CT scans revealed a long wooden rod against the child's back that supported the mummy wrapping. All of the scans were done without having to remove the wrap.
Scans detected a hole in the child's skull. The brain, like jelly, would have drained through the hole and out through a nostril as part of the mummification process, Washington University dentist and anthropologist Charles Hildebolt said. The scans also identified small incisions on the left side of the body through which the child's internal organs were removed and placed in jars.
One of the most interesting finds was a series of amulets or charms in the boy's body cavity and in the wrapping, suggesting his family was well-off. "The wrapping was a protective cocoon for the body,'' Hildebolt said. "Prayers and amulets were a protective cocoon for the metaphysical soul.''
Corpses prepared for mummification were soaked in a salt and baking soda solution for 40 days, then kept in oils for 30 days.
Washington University geneticist Anne Bowcock said she feared the DNA would have undergone chemical changes or been "contaminated'' by those who handled the corpse. But that wasn't a problem.
The challenge was boring into the mummy, which had petrified, to get three samples of degraded muscle, tissue and bone. She succeeded by inserting a thick needle into the chest and shoulder. After that, she extracted DNA using routine methods. Tests showed the boy's mother was European. She plans more tests to determine his father's ancestry.
Bowcock said it was amazing to get anything at all from 2,000-year-old DNA.
Science Center staff were concerned that a mummy exhibit would disrespect the dead. But Egyptologist Ikram said the hope was instead that it would honor the child's life.
A "mummy prayer'' accompanying the exhibit speaks of "all things good and pure on which a god lives, to the spirit of the revered Child, the justified one.''
The study of ancient DNA is familiar territory for the group that led the research. The team is led by Hendrik Poinar, who previously reconstructed woolly mammoth DNA and retrieved the genomes of plague bacteria from the teeth of sixth-century skeletons. (He is also the son of the scientist whose work extracting cellular structures from insects preserved in amber inspired Jurassic Park).
But the team did not start the study in pursuit of smallpox that was a surprise. The work began with the opportunity to extract tissues from an unusual set of mummies that are preserved in a church in Vilnius, Lithuania, which are the study project of Dario Piombino-Mascali, a physical anthropologist who is a National Geographic Explorer.
“These are completely natural mummies, in the sense that no process was carried out to dry them,” says Piombino-Mascali, a visiting researcher at Vilnius University.
“There are 23 with good to excellent preservation of soft tissue. Seven are intact, so we have only CT-scanned them. But the ones that have some loss of substance or are missing some body part, we sampled the soft tissue from them.”
The first tissue Piombino submitted to Poinar’s lab was from a preserved partial body: the pelvis and legs of a child whom the team estimate to have been 2 to 4 years old when he or she died, sometime between 1643 and 1665.
There were no signs of illness, including no visible pustules, on the preserved limbs. The lab extracted and sequenced the genetic material in the sample, intending to look for an organism called JC polyomavirus that is a research interest of one of the team members.
To their surprise, out of the stew of genetic material in the sample, they got more than 200 matches that indicated fragmentary, damaged, and non-infectious smallpox DNA.
After further work, the team pulled out and reassembled the entire genome of Variola, the viral cause of smallpox, and then compared it to records of other smallpox samples. The oldest external sample came from 1944 and the latest from 1977, just before the disease was declared eradicated.
Because the modern samples had precise dates of collection, the team was able to use them to measure the degree of evolutionary difference between them, as well as the divergence between the modern samples and the 17th century one, and to predict a consistent rate at which the virus changed.
“We can move backward through time and build the evolutionary process in reverse,” says Ana Duggan, the paper’s first author and a post-doc at the DeGroote Institute.
At the other end of that process, they arrived at a date for a single common ancestor where the evolutionary differences would converge. That date is between 1588 and 1645. If correct, the finding would confirm that smallpox was responsible for the terrible epidemics that made it notorious—but exonerate it from responsibility for the millennia-old cases described in archives.
Crucially, the diversity of the viral genomes the group studied “isn’t particularly high,” Duggan notes.
“If you are going to follow this historical narrative that smallpox is thousands of years old—whether you say that smallpox begins with 2,000-year-old mummies, or extrapolate back and say smallpox has been with us since the dawn of agriculture—you might expect there would be a lot more diversity, and we don’t see that.”
DNA From 17th Century Mummy Of A Child From Lithuania May Rewrite History Of Smallpox
File picture: Independent Media
Cape Town - Grant beneficiaries have been cautioned about scammers trying their luck this festive season.
The latest reported scare involves conmen claiming to offer a R400 Sassa Christmas food hamper in exchange for personal information, including card pin numbers.
Regional SA State Security Agency (Sassa) spokesperson Shivani Wahab said the agency would never offer food vouchers or any reward in return for information.
Sassa is mandated to manage and pay out social grants, and pays out about R10.6 billion to more than 16 million people a month. “We would like to request social grant beneficiaries to be vigilant, especially with the festive season approaching. All social grant beneficiaries are susceptible to marketing of financial products and extortion by people with sinister intentions.
“In some cases social grant beneficiaries have been inundated with text messages urging them to obtain new Sassa cards.
“We reiterate that Sassa never communicates with its beneficiaries via SMS, and beneficiaries are warned not to respond to any SMS messages.”
Wahab said the danger of responding to these scams was that beneficiaries could be stripped of their cash or unusual deductions, which they never authorised, could possibly be deducted off their social grants in future.
Social justice and human rights group Black Sash’s national advocacy manager and spokesperson, Elroy Paulus, said since Sassa instructed its service provider, Cash Paymaster Services (CPS), owned by Net1, to remove a debit order facility from Sassa branded cards, the group noticed an acceleration in unauthorised deductions.
Black Sash has for years been running a “Hands Off Our Grants campaign” to force Sassa to prevent deductions.
6,000-year-old child skeleton found in Israel's ⟊ve of Horrors' along with ancient Dead Sea scrolls and world's oldest basket
Archaeologists have discovered the 6,000-year-old skeleton of a child in the "Cave of Horrors" in Israel's Judean Desert alongside ancient Dead Sea scrolls as well as what may be the world's oldest basket.
The Cave of Horrors takes its name from the 40 skeletons found there during excavations in the 1960s. Researchers found the child's remains naturally mummified in the dry atmosphere of the cave, which can be accessed only by climbing ropes.
A CT scan revealed that the child, who had skin, tendons, and even hair partially preserved, was between 6 and 12 years old, according to Smithsonian Magazine. The child is thought to have been a girl.
"It was obvious that whoever buried the child had wrapped him up and pushed the edges of the cloth beneath him, just as a parent covers his child in a blanket," Ronit Lupu, a prehistorian at the Israel Antiquities Authority, said in a statement. "A small bundle of cloth was clutched in the child's hands."
The skeleton was found along with ancient Dead Sea scrolls, which are among the earliest texts written in Hebrew.
The newly discovered fragments of the 2,000-year-old scrolls are Greek translations from the biblical books of Nahum and Zechariah, found in the Book of the 12 Minor Prophets in the Jewish Tanakh.
The only Hebrew included in the text, however, is the name of God, The Independent said, and the scrolls are thought to have been hidden during a Jewish revolt against Rome, NBC News added.
What appears to be the world's oldest recovered basket, dating back 10,000 years, was also found, as were arrowheads and coins thought to be from the Bar Kochba revolt period in other caves, The Guardian reported.
The authority commissioned the excavation in 2017 after reports of plundering by looters, The Guardian said.
Sarcophagus (coffin): Then the Mummy was placed in a coffin or a series of coffins, each with a cartouche (name plate)
Procession: There was a procession by family and friends to the final resting place.
Mourners: Mourners wailed as priests prayed at the tomb door.
Tomb Door Sealed: The tomb door was locked and sealed.
Weighing of the Heart: The ancient Egyptians believed the gods performed the weighing of the heart ceremony (hidden from human sight). If the deceased (the mummy's) heart was light, and passed the test, he or she then boarded Ra's heavenly boat and sailed away to join Osiris in the shining land of the Two Fields for a wonderful eternity. If his or her heart was not light - oh dear - he or she would be gobbled up and disappear forever, never to reach eternity. To the ancient Egyptians, it was very important to keep their heart light by doing good deeds. Nobody wanted to be gobbled up! And nobody wanted to miss out on eternity.