Paleopathology, the science of ancient diseases, was founded by Dr. Arthur Aufderheide, a professor at the University of Minnesota. Aufderheide collected thousands of tissue samples from 284 mummies found in South America, and he used these samples to identify the ailments that ancient civilizations suffered from. His work is continually helping scientists figure out where these diseases began, how they were passed, and how they were treated.
Paleopathologists write case reports about individual mummies and postulate about the disease that one person suffered from. But by looking at cultures that lived in different environment, scientists may be able to learn more about the relationships between biology and culture, and how this interaction affects disease. This research may be used to help cure modern diseases.
These research specialist paleopathologists have found that mummy tissues may still contain signs of the illnesses that caused their death. The eyes are usually very well preserved, so Dr. Aufderheide and others are able to study chronic conditions such as high blood pressure, diabetes, cancer, alcoholism, and nutritional deficits. Mummy tissues also give scientists valuable information about diseases caused by bacteria and parasites, such as malaria, tuberculosis, and Chagas' disease, an incurable illness affecting many people today in coastal areas of South America. The results of his testing suggest that Chagas' disease has plagued coastal cultures of South America for more than 9,000 years.
The primary samples used by most paleopathologists are skeletal remains. Scientists can inspect bones using x-rays as well as chemical analysis and laboratory experiments. These types of studies can reveal a great deal about an individual's medical history and disease, including the cause of death. Bones may be affected directly by diseases such as arthritis, or bones may have indications of suffering such as tuberculosis or syphilis. When bones display evidence of physical traumas due to violence or injuries, signs of infection or healed fractures can provide information about the long-term effects of the traumas suffered by the individual.
Dr. Aufderheide wrote and published an article about his studies, and he happened to mention that he had been saving and storing the eyes of mummies and hoped to find a scientist willing to examine them. William Lloyd, an ophthalmologist at UC Davis, happened to read Dr. Aufderheide's article and jumped at the opportunity. Lloyd, an expert in comparative ophthalmology, started by the method to rehydrate the eyes and to prepare them for chemical processing and laboratory examinations. He then set about coating the eyes with paraffin and extracting slices to view beneath a microscope. Although the initial testing on the eyes showed no signs of modern eye diseases such as glaucoma, Lloyd hopes to examine more mummy eyes and conduct more tests to form conclusive opinions.
The most common type of research paleopathologists undertake is studying mummies to evaluate the nutrition of ancient civilizations. Skeletons and dental remains are invaluable for determining the diet and nutritive intake of different cultures. For example, vitamin D deficiency is responsible for leg bones growing curved; some types of infection such as tuberculosis leave traces in skeletal remains; skeletal measurements are affected by malnutrition; extensive evidence of dental caries may indicate the digestion of soft or sticky food such as that eaten by civilizations with agricultural diets; and unusually porous eye sockets or skulls can indicate anemia, which may be due to iron deficiency.
Every study of ancient civilizations helps researchers learn more about what led human beings to the people we are today. With every step in science, we take a step towards a better future.