A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
A recent X-ray study of Chachapoya mummies (A.D. 800-1000) from north-central Peru revealed the prevalence of a spinal infection that bears a strong resemblance to tuberculosis, a disease once thought to have been introduced by Europeans. While evidence for TB has been identified in the DNA of Precolumbian skeletons (see "Precolumbian Tuberculosis," July/ August 1994), the new finding marks the first time it has been identified in the Andes.
Over a three-year period, more than 900 X rays of 188 mummies were processed at the remote site of Laguna de los Cóndores, in the cloud forest on the east slope of the Andes (see "Tombs with a View," March/April 1998). The X rays revealed a classic symptom of the spinal form of TB in 6.4 percent of the mummies: destruction of the front part of the vertebrae, which leads to compression and an exaggerated forward bending of the spine. In general, for remains examined over the last century, one individual develops the spinal form of TB for every four with the lung-based form. If the correlation applies to the ancient form of the disease, the prevalence of pulmonary TB among the Chachapoya might have been as high as 25 percent. The disease was three times more common in males than females, suggesting some men were involved in long-term activities isolated from women.