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Murder victims confirmed among pre-Columbian mummies, researchers say

CT scans proved two mummies were murder victims.

(CN) — Playing the part of detectives in their study published Thursday in Frontiers in Medicine, researchers examined the skeleton remains and preserved soft tissues of three pre-Columbian mummies and discovered two were murdered.

To examine the three mummies that had been preserved since the 19th century, the researchers used 3D computerized tomography, or 3D CT. Dr. Andreas G. Nerlich, a professor at the Department of Pathology of Munich Clinic Bogenhausen in Germany and the study’s corresponding author, explained 3D CT as “virtual calculations of soft tissues (and bones) that can be viewed from various sides and in relation to neighboring structures.”

According to Nerlich, the technology was essential in identifying the trauma the mummies endured.

“It provided the option to reconstruct soft tissue structures that would otherwise have escaped from detection,” wrote Nerlich via email. He added that the “types of trauma we found would not have been detectable if these human remains had been mere skeletons.”

Using 3D CT, the researchers confirmed that the male mummies died violently.

The researchers theorize that two people killed the Marburg mummy between 996 and 1147 A.D., according to radiocarbon results, a man who belonged to the Arica culture in today’s northern Chile. They said it was possible that one attacker hit the victim on the head while a second attacker stabbed the Marburg mummy in the back, though it is unclear if he was standing or kneeling at the time of his death. However, the researchers said they did not rule out a lone attacker carrying out the murder. 

Meanwhile, the researchers found that the male Delémont mummy, who likely came from the Arequipa region in today’s southwestern Peru, 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,” according to the study. Researchers dated his death between 902 and 994 A.D.

As for the third and only female mummy, the study says that she died of natural causes sometime between 1224 and 1282 A.D. Although she showed extensive skeletal damage, the researchers confirmed that this occurred post-mortem, possibly during the burial process and not on purpose.

Nerlich touted the advantages 3D CT gave the researchers when studying the mummies, especially considering the potential downsides of other methods.

“Long ago, mummy studies were mostly only done by dissection (and destruction) of a body,” wrote Nerlich. “More recently, X-rays and later CT scans provided non-destructive insights into those bodies, however, with only limited information. Novel CTs are much more detailed and provide the option of (3D) reconstructions of specific body parts.”

The findings in this study could have wider implications for finding the causes of death in other mummies. After all, the study noted that a recent review of other pre-Columbian remains found evidence of violent trauma in 21% of male mummies. With 3D CT, researchers can determine how exactly these pre-Columbian people died.

“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 we did here,” said Nerlich.

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