The case of the mummies of the murdered: “virtual autopsy” revealed fatal injuries

Increase / The face and upper body of one of two South American mummies believed to have been murdered, according to a recent “virtual autopsy”.

AM Begerock et al., 2022

An international team of scientists used computed tomography to conduct “virtual autopsies” on three South American mummies and found evidence of fatal injuries in two of them, reports a a recent paper published in Frontiers in Medicine. One of the mummies was apparently hit on the head and stabbed, possibly by two assailants, while the other showed signs of massive trauma to the cervical spine. A third female mummy also showed signs of trauma, but the damage was inflicted postmortem. The research is part of an ongoing effort to determine the frequency of violence in prehistoric human societies.

According to the authors, there is a large database of ancient Egyptian mummies and skeletons that show signs of trauma, but much less data on South American mummies, many of which were formed naturally and are remarkably well preserved. However, evidence of lethal trauma has previously been reported in a few cases, such as a pre-Columbian skull from the Nazca region that shows a well-founded injury to the cervical spine and associated bleeding into the soft tissues of the skull. The nearly complete female mummy showed signs of facial bone fractures consistent with massive weapon impacts, as did the skull of the mummified male infant.

An extensive 1993 survey used conventional X-rays to analyze 63 mummies and mummy fragments, 11 of which showed evidence of skull trauma. But these mummies came from different places, populations, and time periods, making it difficult to draw general conclusions from the findings. Last yearresearchers looked for signs of violence in the remains of 194 adults buried between 2,800 and 1,400 years ago in the Atacama Desert in northern Chile, 40 of whom appeared to have been victims of brutal violence.

The authors of this latest work combined expertise in anthropology, forensic medicine and pathology and relied on CT technology to reconstruct the three mummies under study. “The availability of state-of-the-art CT scans with the capability of 3D reconstruction provides a unique insight into bodies that would otherwise not have been detected,” said co-author Andreas Nerlich, a pathologist at Munich’s Bogenhausen Clinic in Germany. “Previous studies would have destroyed the mummy, while X-rays or old CT scans without three-dimensional reconstruction features would not have been able to reveal the key diagnostic features we discovered.”

The first specimen analyzed by Nerlich and his colleagues is known as the “Marburg Mummy,” a mummified male housed at the Phillips University Anatomical Museum in Marburg, Germany. (Acquisition records describe it as a “female mummy,” so someone at the time missed the mummy’s male genitalia.) The man was probably 20 to 25 years old when he died, and was about 5 feet 6.5 inches tall (1.72 meters). He was buried in a squatting position, and given the nature of the cargo buried with him, he probably belonged to the fishing community of the Arica culture in what is now northern Chile. There were previously scars on his lungs, indicating that the man had tuberculosis, and he had well-preserved but crooked teeth. Radiocarbon dating indicates that he died between 996 and 1147 AD.

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