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Helicobacters in Antiquity

Chile’s Atacama Desert is one of the driest places on earth. In many parts of this region, rainfall has never been recorded. Yet, despite its harsh climate, it is also one of the most spectacularly beautiful landscapes imaginable. Otherworldly rock formations and expansive salt lakes are interspersed with regions in which bright blue skies and rugged, rocky peaks frame a terrain of billowy, bright sand that is almost completely unmarred by animal or plant life.

While perhaps not a great place to plan a family vacation, the Atacama Desert is an excellent place to search for mummies! It has in fact proven a veritable treasure-trove of mummified human remains, some of which are many thousands of years old. In this highly arid climate, corpses tend to dehydrate rather than decay, providing some of the most intact specimens available. Unlike Egyptian mummies, which underwent elaborate mummification procedures prior to being placed in their tombs, these specimens have mummified without extensive handling, and for that reason their internal organs are often largely intact. The scarcity of human and animal life has allowed these specimens to rest relatively undisturbed for centuries.

Dr. Marvin Allison and his colleague at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Virginia, Dr. Enrique Gerszten, have spent their careers studying the undoing of our ancient ancestors. They have been particularly interested in understanding the diseases from which ancient people suffered, and how these diseases have spread through human civilizations over time. These scientists employ a sophisticated combination of archaeological and modern molecular methods to discover how these people lived and died.

So what diseases did our ancient ancestors contract? According to Drs. Allison and Gerszten, they suffered from many of the same conditions that we currently battle! Using their expertise in performing anatomical examinations, similar to those used during modern-day autopsies, they found such commonplace conditions as emphysema, breast cancer, and pneumonia. By applying cutting-edge molecular biology methods, they also identified several infectious diseases within these ancient specimens. Using bits of feces from the intestines of 1,700- year-old mummies, they discovered that our ancient relatives not only suffered from the same modern-day diarrheal parasites, such as Cryptosporidium and Giardia, but they were also infected with Helicobacter pylori, providing the first evidence that humans and Helicobacters have had a very, very long history together!

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