Mummies Contribute to Medical Understanding about Atherosclerosis

Penn Museum Mummies Contribute
to Emerging Medical Understanding about Atherosclerosis

MARCH 11, 2013—Atherosclerosis—hardening of the arteries—has been widely assumed to be a disease of modern times, brought on by modern foods and lifestyles—until now.

A recent study of 137 mummies from four different regions of the world—including five Penn Museum Ancestral Puebloan mummies from the American Southwest, circa 1500 BC to 1500 CE—revealed clear or probable signs of atherosclerosis in 34% of the international group, dated from about 4,000 to 110 years old, with individuals who died between the ages of 2 and 60 years. The surprising prevalence of the disease among such a large percentage of pre-modern humans raises the distinct possibility that humans have long had a more basic predisposition to the life-threatening disease.

Such was the conclusion reached by a group of scientists, presenting their paper in the March 10, 2013 online edition of medical journal The Lancet. Janet Monge, Associate Curator, Physical Anthropology Section, Penn Museum, and Samantha L. Cox, former Penn undergraduate student, were among the authors of the paper (lead author: Randall C. Thompson), Atherosclerosis across 4000 years of human history: the Horus study of four ancient populations.

Of the five Penn Museum mummies in the study, one was probable and one was deemed definite for the disease.

The mummies in the study come from a variety of populations with vastly different diets. Some of the peoples were foragers eating a wide variety of wild-origin plant foods with some non-domesticate animals. Others came from societies that subsisted on agricultural stable grain products. Across all of these cultures and peoples, atherosclerosis was present especially in the peoples who lived past the age of 30. Thus it seems as if humans develop atherosclerosis independent of diet and it seems that it is quite possibility ubiquitous across all human populations throughout time. Diet appears to be a relatively minor component of the disease.

Photo captions (top to bottom): Janet Monge, Keeper and Curator-in-Charge, Penn Museum Physical Anthropology Dept., pointing at a skull unearthed from the Duffy's Cut mass grave of Irish railroad workers who died in Chester County in 1832. Photo Steve Minicola; Samantha Cox, a former Penn student and research assistant under Janet Monge joined the Duffy's Cut Project in spring 2009. Photo Penn Museum.


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