Researchers have already been able to work out that the 15-year-old Incan mummy known as “The Maiden” that was discovered alongside two other mummies died as part of a sacrifice roughly 500 years ago, but new research has revealed that the girl was also suffering from a lung infection at the time of her death.
The mummy was first discovered in over a decade ago along with the other children on top of Mount Ampato near Arequipa, Peru. Due to the extremely frigid temperatures in the area, the remains of the Maiden and the other two children were remarkably well preserved.
Using a technique called “shotgun proteomics,” Angelique Corthals, a forensic anthropologist at the City University of New York, and a team of researchers analyzed tissue proteins to determine what was going on in the young girl’s body at or around the time of her death. Surprisingly, researchers discovered that the mummy had a lung infection — possibly even tuberculosis.
Here’s how the discovery was made, as per Live Science’s report:
“[Researchers] placed [the mummies’] samples into a device called a mass spectrometer, which broke all of the sample’s proteins into their constituent parts, amino-acid chains. Sophisticated software compared these parts with existing proteins of the human genome to determine the actual proteins in the samples, Corthals explained. ‘You couldn’t use this technique for an organism that we don’t have the complete genome for,’ she said.”
The discovery that a 500-year-old mummy had a lung infection may seem small at a glance, but it’s a big step forward for shotgun proteomics research as a whole.
“Our study is the first of its kind since, rather than looking for the pathogen, which is notoriously difficult to do in historical samples, we are looking at the protein profile of the ‘patient,’ which more accurately tells us that there was indeed an infection at the time of death,” Corthals said.
“Our study opens the door to solving many historical and current biomedical and forensic mysteries, from understanding why the plague of 1918 was so lethal to finding out which pathogen is responsible for death is cases of multiple infections.”