W h e n smallpox was common in Europe

Lithuanian Mummies Reveal Their Secrets to Scientists

Thanks to their analysis of nearly two dozen extraordinary well-preserved corpses found in a church crypt in Vilnius, Lithuania, scientists are revising long-held assumptions about the history of smallpox and other diseases. Buried along with hundreds of other bodies, these 23 corpses were spontaneously mummified—some with nearly intact clothing, skin and internal organs—by the cool temperature and ventilation of their underground lair. Since 2012, a team of researchers has been studying the mummies in order to better understand their health and the diseases they suffered.

Late last year, news broke that scientists in Canada had discovered the oldest complete set of smallpox genes in the mummified body of a child found in the church crypt in Vilnius, Lithuania’s capital and largest city. Their dramatic findings cast doubt on the entire historical record of smallpox, once one of the world’s most devastating diseases.

Based on written accounts from ancient China and India, as well as observations of the appearances of some Egyptian mummies, historians and scientists assumed smallpox had been around for thousands of years. But when the researchers compared DNA from the remnants of variola, the virus that causes smallpox, found in the Vilnius child mummy with modern strains from the 1940s to the ‘70s, they found they all had a common ancestor that emerged relatively recently, between 1588 and 1645.

The Vilnius child, believed to be around 2 to 4 years old, died in the mid-17th century, when smallpox was common in Europe. He or she was one of hundreds of individuals buried in the cavernous crypt beneath the ornate Late Baroque-style Dominican Church of the Holy Spirit, in the heart of Vilnius. As reported in the New York Times, the cool temperatures and ventilation of the underground chamber spontaneously mummified some of the corpses and kept them nearly intact for centuries, even as Vilnius was invaded and occupied first by Napoleon Bonaparte and later by the Nazis.

In the 1960s, during yet another occupation—this time by the Soviet Union—the forensic scientist Juozas Albinas Markulis and his students at Vilnius University began studying the bodies buried in the church’s underground crypt, seeking to find any World War II victims hidden among corpses from earlier centuries. Markulis, a former Soviet spy who had posed as a member of the Lithuanian resistance, identified some 500 bodies; about 200 of them had been naturally mummified.

But after authorities sealed off the chamber behind a glass wall, the air within got steadily more humid, and the mummies began to decay. Eventually the site was closed completely, and was only reopened to anthropologists in 2004. When researchers subsequently examined the bodies, they found that only 23 of the 200 mummies identified by Markulis’ team remained intact.

Since 2012, a research team led by Italian anthropologist Dario Piombini-Mascali has been studying the Vilnius mummies, hoping to gain insights about how these individuals from the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries lived, their health and the diseases they suffered. Even though most of the individuals buried in the church crypt belonged to members of the higher social classes, the scientists found they had no shortage of health problems, including dental decay, gum disease, arthritis, intestinal parasites, atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries) and rickets, among other ailments.

Then in December 2016, DNA analysis of the child mummy by the team at Canada’s McMaster University found remnants of variola, upending the conventional wisdom about the history of smallpox. While earlier accounts of smallpox, dating back thousands of years, were based on descriptions of physical symptoms (such as rashes) that could potentially have been caused by other afflictions, comparison of the viral DNA from the Vilnius child with modern strains strongly suggested the disease originated only within the last 500 years.

After killing some 300 million people in the 20th century alone, smallpox was declared officially eradicated in 1980, after an international immunization campaign. According to the World Health Organization, the last known natural case occurred in 1977, in Somalia. Today, only a few samples of smallpox remain under containment in secure labs in the United States and Russia.

Piombini-Mascali and his colleagues with the Lithuanian Mummy Project are far from the only ones interested in mummy health issues. With recent advances in technology—especially DNA sequencing, CT-scanning and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)—scientists are learning all kinds of things about early civilizations and their health by studying ancient remains once considered too fragile to work with. Recent studies of mummies from all over the world have yielded insights into heart disease and tuberculosis, among other ailments, suggesting that even men and women who have been dead for centuries might still have much to teach us about the future of our health.


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