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

Enlarge / Face and upper body of one of two South American mummies that were likely murdered, based on a recent “virtual autopsy.”
A-M Begerock et al., 2022

An international team of scientists used CT scanning to conduct “virtual autopsies” of three South American mummies and found evidence of fatal trauma in two of them, according to a recent paper published in the journal Frontiers in Medicine. One of the mummies had clearly been hit on the head and stabbed, possibly by two assailants, while the other showed signs of massive cervical spine trauma. The third female mummy also showed signs of trauma, but the damage was inflicted post-mortem. The study is part of ongoing efforts 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 having suffered a traumatic injury, but there is far less data for South American mummies, many of which formed naturally and are exceptionally well-preserved. Nonetheless, evidence of fatal trauma has been reported previously in a few cases, such as a pre-Columbian skull from the Nasca region showing rational trauma to the cervical spine and accompanying soft tissue bleeding into the skull. An almost complete female mummy showed signs of facial bone fractures consistent with massive strikes from a weapon, as did the skull of a mummified male infant.

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

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The authors of this most recent paper have combined expertise in anthropology, forensic medicine, and pathology and relied upon CT scanning technology to reconstruct the three mummies under investigation. “The availability of modern CT scans with the opportunity for 3D reconstructions offers unique insight into bodies that would otherwise not have been detected,” said co-author Andreas Nerlich, a pathologist at Munich Clinic Bogenhausen in Germany. “Previous studies would have destroyed the mummy, while X-rays or older CT scans without three-dimensional reconstruction functions could not have detected the diagnostic key features we found.”

The first specimen Nerlich and his colleagues analyzed is known as the “Marburg Mummy,” a mummified male housed at the Museum Anatomicum of the Phillips University 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 likely between 20 and 25 when he died and stood roughly 5 feet, 6.5 inches (1.72 meters) tall. He was buried in a squatting position, and given the nature of the goods buried with him, he likely belonged to a fishing community of the Arica culture in what is now northern Chile. There was prior scarring of the lungs, indicating the man suffered from tuberculosis, and he had well-preserved but crooked teeth. Radiocarbon dating indicates he died between 996 and 1147 CE.

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The mummy also shows significant signs of violent trauma, so much so that the authors concluded, “The Marburg man clearly was a victim of a homicide.” They cite circumstantial evidence that he was stabbed in the back; there is evidence of a deep wound that likely reached the aorta, leading to an almost immediate loss of consciousness. There was also evidence of repeated skull trauma, although this was probably not the immediate cause of death. Nerlich et al. suggest this might be evidence of two attackers: one standing in front of the victim who struck him with a cudgel or club, and a second assailant standing behind the victim, who stabbed him. The victim was likely either standing up or on his knees during the attack.

The team also analyzed a male mummy and a female mummy housed at the Art and History Museum of Delemont, Switzerland, both of which had been buried lying face up and possibly came from the Arequipa region in what is now southwestern Peru. This assumption is based on burial goods associated with the mummies, but since there is no documentation of their provenance, it’s not clear whether those goods actually belonged to the deceased. Both are covered in textiles made from cotton and camelid hair.

The male mummy died between 902 and 994 CE, according to the radiocarbon dating, and suffered from calcifying arteriosclerosis. The authors concluded the man was between 40 and 60 years old at the time of his death and stood about 5 feet, 5.5 inches (1.7 meters). The skull bears evidence of multiple fractures consistent with blows to the head, including the presence of bone fragments in the cranial cavity (as well as a bit of desiccated brain tissue). Some of that damage was older and showed signs of having healed rather badly, deforming the face.

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The most likely cause of death, per the authors, is the massive rotational trauma the man suffered to the cervical spine, significantly dislocating two vertebrae—an injury that almost certainly would have been fatal. “We speculate that, while the man was stunned by a blow to the skull, the disruption of the cortical spinal cord occurred by a massive blow,” the authors concluded. They do acknowledge, however, that this dislocation may have occurred while preparing the corpse for burial, or might have been caused by tissue shrinkage after death. As with the trauma found on the Marburg Mummy, this is an injury that would probably not have been detected at all in purely skeletal remains.

As for the Delemont female mummy, radiocarbon dating pegs her demise much later than her male counterpart; between 1224 and 1282 CE, so the two might not even be related to each other. The woman died between 20 and 30 years of age, and a wooden rod was inserted into the spinal canal long after death, probably to stabilize the remains before transporting them to Europe. There is significant spinal damage, multiple fractures (the jaw, the right clavicle, the left scapula, multiple ribs), and a dislocated right elbow, among other trauma. But the authors concluded that the damage occurred post-mortem. They were unable to determine the exact cause of death.

DOI: Frontiers in Medicine, 2022. 10.3389/fmed.2022.962793  (About DOIs).