Mum­mies shed­ding light on small­pox

Re­mains in Lithua­nian crypt give re­searchers new in­sight into spread of dis­ease, says Daniel Bof­fey

The Guardian Weekly - - Discovery -

The crypt un­der the Do­mini­can Church of the Holy Spirit in the heart of Vil­nius, cap­i­tal of Lithua­nia, has a vivid his­tory. The coffins hid­den in the gloomy lair un­der the church’s al­tar were stripped by Napoleon’s army for wood. Dur­ing the se­cond world war, the Nazis used it as a makeshift bomb shel­ter. And in their time as the lo­cal over­lords, the So­vi­ets con­verted the crypt into a mu­seum of athe­ism.

Now Dario Piom­bino-Mas­cali is ap­ply­ing an al­to­gether more gen­tle touch as he at­tempts to prise out the se­crets of its ghostly in­hab­i­tants: 23 men, women and chil­dren who died in the 17th, 18th and 19th cen­turies and whose re­mains were mum­mi­fied by the crypt’s cool tem­per­a­ture and gen­tle ven­ti­la­tion.

Flesh still cov­ers their bones, there are clothes on their skin and or­gans re­main in their chests. And Piom­bino-Mas­cali, an an­thro­pol­o­gist from Italy, has found there are lessons to be learned for mod­ern medicine from the dis­eases that killed these peo­ple.

The DNA sam­pled from the pelvis and legs of a mum­mi­fied child, who died around 1643-1665 be­tween the ages of two and four, has de­liv­ered the big­gest find so far, of­fer­ing sci­en­tists fresh in­sight into how small­pox evolved in the past and might mu­tate in the fu­ture. “We didn’t dis­cover ini­tially that this child had small­pox be­cause the dis­ease didn’t leave any sign,” Piom­bi­noMas­cali says, talk­ing in his of­fice in Vil­nius Univer­sity, his back to a wall of skulls, some boxed up, oth­ers gurn­ing back at vis­i­tors.

The value in the dis­cov­ery, Piom­bino-Mas­cali says, is that sci­en­tists are now ques­tion­ing the ac­cepted un­der­stand­ing of when the killer virus, the cause of 500 mil­lion deaths world­wide, first emerged. It had been be­lieved that small­pox emerged around the time of the Pharaohs and grad­u­ally mu­tated. But ge­netic re­searchers built a fam­ily tree of 49 mod­ern strains and the child’s an­cient one, and traced the evo­lu­tion of them all back to com­mon an­ces­tors from 1530 and 1654.

The find­ing raises the ques­tion of where small­pox sud­denly ap­peared from in the 16th cen­tury. Per­haps it jumped from an­i­mals from hu­mans. Per­haps a dor­mant strain could still be found in an­i­mals, and make that deadly jump again. “You re­ally need to know how these con­di­tions de­velop and evolve through time,” Piom­bino-Mas­cali says.

Sci­en­tists are now ques­tion­ing the ac­cepted un­der­stand­ing of when the killer virus emerged

“It has been erad­i­cated but the virus is kept by the US and Rus­sian gov­ern­ments. That in­for­ma­tion might be valu­able at some point. It’s al­ways good to know what we can do.”

“We have also found tu­ber­cu­lo­sis,” Piom­bi­noMas­cali adds. “Gen­er­ally it is stud­ied on the bones. But be­cause the lungs were well pre­served we were able to see the cal­ci­fi­ca­tion of the lungs that is com­pat­i­ble with the pres­ence of TB. There is an on­go­ing de­bate about the his­tory of TB and we can do a ge­netic study now.

“We are work­ing to iden­tify both bac­te­ria and viruses. There is a group in Helsinki work­ing on the viruses found in the sam­ples. We’ll find out more in Septem­ber.”

How­ever, for Piom­bino-Mas­cali him­self, it is the in­sight into the habits and prac­tices of the dead that has in­ter­ested him most. “What I thought was re­ally use­ful for our knowl­edge of dis­ease was the dis­cov­ery of the level of fat in the ar­ter­ies: it was very se­vere,” he says.

“Many peo­ple be­lieve that this is a dis­ease of civil­i­sa­tion, brought on by seden­tary be­hav­iour, bad food, junk food.

“Ac­tu­ally we know the con­di­tion was present even be­fore [the mod­ern day] and in the spe­cific case of Vil­nius that is re­lated to the diet of these peo­ple that was very poor in greens and veg­eta­bles and fruit. They were eat­ing a lot of meat and cook­ing it in fat.”

Piom­bino-Mas­cali is care­ful in his work, and in­tensely aware that these are the re­mains of hu­man be­ings. “Some look like they are just sleep­ing,” the an­thro­pol­o­gist says.

He is also well aware of how eas­ily the frag­ile life­like re­mains can fall to dust. In the 1960s, the Rus­sian foren­sic sci­en­tist Juozas Al­bi­nas Markulis, a Soviet spy who posed as a mem­ber of the anti-Nazi re­sis­tance, recorded that there were 500 bod­ies in the crypt, of which 200 were mum­mies.

The author­i­ties, how­ever, be­came con­cerned about a po­ten­tial epi­demic and or­dered that many of them be sealed be­hind glass, where they wasted away to a pile of bones in what was known at the time as the cham­ber of death.

It is un­clear why the 23 mum­mies in­tact to­day were saved from that fate, but Piom­bino-Mas­cali says he won’t be re­spon­si­ble for any fur­ther dam­age to what he re­gards as cul­tural trea­sures, as well as aids to sci­en­tific dis­cov­ery. “I don’t do dis­sec­tions – I don’t want to do that,” he says.

“I be­lieve be­ing dead doesn’t erase the hu­man­ity. I wouldn’t like to use the knife if bod­ies are com­plete. In that case I re­fused. I said no. Only if there are nat­u­ral open­ings we will go in­side, whether from de­com­po­si­tion, or dam­age,” he says.

Piom­bino-Mas­cali doesn’t visit the crypt these days. It’s dif­fi­cult to get ac­cess from the priest, and he al­ready has his sam­ples.

But he doesn’t want the mum­mies’ sto­ries to be lost. “They have to be ex­hib­ited in a de­cent proper way,” he says, “so that peo­ple can un­der­stand more about their his­tory. I’ll keep work­ing on that.”

Mar­tin Nor­ris Travel Pho­tog­ra­phy/Alamy

Sci­en­tific sleuthing … left, the crypt of the Do­mini­can Church of the Holy Spirit in Vil­nius; be­low, some of the mum­mies be­ing stud­ied

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