Wednesday, December 13, 2017
Health

Unwrapping the secrets of mummies at MOSI in Tampa

TAMPA — In a darkened room inside the Museum of Science and Industry lie the mummified bodies of the Orlovits family: Michael, 41; his wife, Veronica, 35; and the couple's young son, Johannes, age unknown.

Their bodies were among more than 200 discovered inside a secret crypt beneath a church in Vac, Hungary, in 1994.

It wasn't immediately clear how the young Hungarian couple and their son died. But recently, using the latest advances in computerized tomography, or CT scanning, scientists have been able to determine the likely culprit: Veronica Orlovits had severe tuberculosis, and likely gave it to her husband and son. All three died around the early 19th century.

Over the past several years, CT and other scans have been performed on mummies of all ages from around the world to give doctors and scientists a better understanding of how the people lived and died. The hope is that the scans can advance current understanding of diseases such as tuberculosis, which today afflicts 8.8 million people worldwide and kills 1.4 million of them a year, according to the World Health Organization.

"It's important we understand how diseases have progressed over time," said Heather Gill-Frerking, director of science for the "Mummies of the World" exhibition, which is on display at MOSI until September.

Scientists have scanned nearly all of the 35 to 45 human mummies featured in the exhibit. In some cases, the scans suggest a cause of death. In others, they indicate that common maladies such as arthritis have plagued people through the ages. Among others on display:

• A Peruvian baby, called the Detmold child, who died sometime between 4504 and 4457 B.C. A scan determined the baby was between 8 and 10 months old and had a heart defect that may have led to its death.

• A tattooed woman from Chile, estimated to be 45 to 50 years old at the time of her death around 1240 A.D., had arthritis in her hands and lower back, though it's not why she died.

• A 30-week-old human fetus from Germany had a rare spinal malformation known as a neural tube defect.

Scanning mummies that are thousands of years old is no easy task.

"They are very fragile specimens," Gill-Frerking said. "We have to be cautious transporting them. We have to be very aware of the fact we are exposing them to radiation, which can impact future studies we want to do."

Examining them has special challenges and some limitations. Anatomy moves and shrinks over time.

Sometimes, the specimen is so old that scientists can't determine a definitive cause of death or an age at time of death. That's especially true with the Detmold Child, which has been carbon dated at more than 6,000 years old, or with many of the ancient Egyptian mummies.

The ancient Egyptian mummies, however, have helped scientists gain new clues about heart disease. Though often believed to be a modern-day disease caused by sedentary lifestyles and diets high in animal fat, scientists have found evidence of blocked arteries in the mummified bodies of Egyptian women, who by many accounts were active and ate mostly grains and vegetables.

More recent specimens such as the Orlovits family may help scientists understand the causes and spread of tuberculosis, a bacterial infection that usually affects the lungs.

Tuberculosis was common in Europe between the 16th and 18th centuries, when as much as a quarter of the population died from it. It remains one of the world's deadliest diseases, though its numbers have declined in the United States.

"Many people don't realize TB is common today," Gill-Frerking said. "In fact, it's developing and coming back stronger."

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