Apr 17, 2014 I Paul Seaburn

Arsenic and Old Mummy Hair

While officials in Charleston, West Virginia, continue to assure residents along the Elk River than the licorice-smelling water which was contaminated by a chemical spill from Freedom Industries is perfectly safe to drink, researchers in Chile say they have proof that drinking the water is what killed a lot of pre-Columbian Incas. Specifically, water contaminated with arsenic.

Chronic arsenic poisoning has long been blamed for the deaths of many Incas because of the concentration of the chemical found in the hair samples of mummies discovered in Chile, but it was difficult to determine if it had been ingested or if it was absorbed in the hair from the soil after burial.

Ioanna Kakoulli, an archaeological scientist at UCLA, and her research team recently imaged hair samples from a 1,000- to 1,500-year-old naturally preserved Chilean mummy using a very-high-resolution scanning electron microscope and tested them with a synchrotron light source, a large particle accelerator that analyzes materials with intense, focused X-ray beams. This generated a location map of chemicals in the hair.

mummy multispectral imaging 570x427
Researcher using a portable multispectral imaging system

If the arsenic came from the soil, it would have only showed up on the surface of the hair. Instead, Kakoulli found a uniform distribution of arsenic, indicating that it came from drinking arsenic-laced water and possibly from eating plants that had been irrigated with it. As added proof, the concentration of arsenic in the hair was much higher than the soil the mummy was buried in. Finally, the dominant form of arsenic in the hair was a type called arsenic III, which is formed when the body biotransforms arsenic after ingestion.

This technique will now be used on mummies buried with hallucinogenic seeds from the Amazon. Presence in the hair would identify them as user while a lack of it would mean they were shamans or doctors who knew their properties and where to find them.

Meanwhile, the residents of Charleston continue to drink bottled water and hope they don’t turn into mummies.

Paul Seaburn

Paul Seaburn is the editor at Mysterious Universe and its most prolific writer. He’s written for TV shows such as "The Tonight Show", "Politically Incorrect" and an award-winning children’s program. He's been published in “The New York Times" and "Huffington Post” and has co-authored numerous collections of trivia, puzzles and humor. His “What in the World!” podcast is a fun look at the latest weird and paranormal news, strange sports stories and odd trivia. Paul likes to add a bit of humor to each MU post he crafts. After all, the mysterious doesn't always have to be serious.

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