The reasoning behind any good mummy’s curse – real or fiction – is that it protects the remains and buried belongings of the deceased by condemning anyone who disturbs them to bad luck, illness or death. That definition has held up throughout the history of major mummy discoveries – the deaths attributed to the opening of the tomb of King Tut – and all of the classic mummy movies and novels. However, that belief generally focuses on the mummies and tombs of pharaohs, royalty and other important people and their relatives. What if the mummy is the remains of an ordinary citizen? That is generally the case of the mummies found in various South American countries. A recent discovery about many of those mummies may open the mummy’s curse to a second possible cause … revenge. A new scan of mummies found in two South American countries revealed a gruesome cause of death – murder. Would you blame those mummies for cursing the living? Did anything happen to the researchers who discovered this?
“The availability of modern CT-scans with the opportunity for 3D reconstructions offers unique insight into bodies that would otherwise not have been detected. Previous studies would have either 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 here.”
One way to avoid a mummy’s curse is to not disturb the mummy. In the past, opening the caskets or removing any coverings on a mummy were necessary to examine it. Dr. Andreas G. Nerlich, a professor at the Department of Pathology of Munich Clinic Bogenhausen in Germany who co-authored a study published in the journal Frontiers in Medicine, explains that his research team utilized 3D computed tomography (3D CT) to examine three mummies. In a sense, they had already been disturbed – one was in a museum in Germany and the other two at a museum in Switzerland. The #D CT would ensure that they were not physically disturbed again. (Photos of the mummies can be seen here.)
The male mummy at the ‘Museum Anatomicum’ of the Philipps University Marburg, Germany, had been found in northern Chile and was believed to belong to the Arica culture. Artifacts found with him indicate he lived in a fishing community. Initial X-rays and analysis showed he was between 20 and 25 years old when he died between 996 and 1147 CE, had misaligned teeth and wear caused by eating maize, and had lung scars caused by severe tuberculosis. A second male and a female mummy were at the Art and History Museum of Delémont, Switzerland. Found in the Arequipa of southwestern Peru, initial examinations showed the male died between 902 and 994 CE, and the female between 1224 and 1282 CE. The man’s aorta and large arteries indicated he suffered from calcifying arteriosclerosis. That is quite a bit of information about these three individuals who lived nearly a thousand years ago, but Nerlich and his team wanted to know how and why they died, and for that they needed to see inside these mummies.
“The types of trauma we found would not have been detectable if these human remains had been mere skeletons.”
In a press release, Nerlich explains that bones can show some trauma and signs of surgery, it is soft tissues and organs – even if they are preserved by dry air mummification – that really reveal how a person lived and died. After CT scanning the mummies, the team had the software created 3D images of how these people looked when they were buried. For the men, the images were shocking.
“One assaulter hit the victim with full force on the head and [a] second assaulter stab[bed] the victim (who still was standing or kneeing) in the back. Alternatively, the same or another assaulter standing on the right side of the victim struck the head and then turned to the back of the victim and stabbed him.”
The image of the Marburg mummy from Chile showed he was “clearly was a victim of a homicide.” The stab cut his thoracis aorta, which would have caused him to lose consciousness. His assailant hit him repeatedly on the head, but the skull lesions alone were not the cause of death – the team believes the entire complex traumatic event was the cause. The Peruvian male mummy from the Delémont museum showed “massive trauma against the cervical spine which represent most likely the cause of death. The significant dislocation of the two cervical vertebral bodies itself is lethal and may have led to immediate death.” In other words, the man was hit from behind on his neck which probably broke it and caused his death. Interestingly (in a morbid sense), the female mummy from Peru showed Only the female mummy had died of natural causes. She also showed extensive damage to her skeleton, but she died of natural causes – the broken bones seem to have occurred while she was being buried and were probably accidental, not some sort of post-mortem ritual or punishment.
“Importantly, the study of human mummified material can reveal a much higher rate of trauma, especially intentional trauma, than the study of skeletons. There are dozens of South American mummies which might profit from a similar investigation as done here we did here.”
While the 3D CT scans and reconstructions revealed that these male mummies were murdered, it doesn’t help to determine why. The violence often attributed to these ancient cultures comes more in the form of war, where violent deaths are easy to identify, or human sacrifices – the remains of sacrifice victims found in South and Central America clearly show how they died, while studies of their ancient cultures and religions give a good idea why. But murder? Even in modern times, it is often difficult to pinpoint the exact reasons for interpersonal violence. Were these ancient people suffering from environmental issues – food shortages due to drought , for instance -- that might cause friends and neighbors to turn on each other for survival? Could this be an early sign of marital or relationship violence? Is there another reason? If the mummy’s curse is real, is a violent death enough of a reason for it?
If only there was a CSI: Special Mummy Unit.