Studies of a 15-year-old Incan girl who was sacrificed on an Argentine mountaintop 500 years ago show that she had a lung infection when she died, most likely tuberculosis, researchers reported this week. Two younger children who died with her did not have an infection, they said.
The mummy, known as the Maiden, was discovered in 1999 about 25 yards from the summit of Llullaiaco, a high-elevation volcano in the province of Salta, Argentina, by archaeologists led by Johan Reinhard and Constanza Ceruti of the Mountain Institute in Franklin, W.Va. The Maiden and a 7-year-old boy and a 6-year-old girl had been sacrificed to Pachamama, the earth goddess, in the ritual of Capacocha. The area's freezing temperatures, low humidity, anaerobic environment and presence of natural disinfectants led to remarkable preservation of the bodies, which are now on display at the Museum of High Mountain Archaeology in Salta, Argentina. The mummies are in airtight, self-contained capsules maintained at minus-20 degrees Celsius.
Testing ancient specimens for infections is a tricky buiness. Because DNA must be amplified, there is a danger of also amplifying extraneous contaminants. And even if a pathogen is present, it doesn't necessarily mean the individual had an active infection.