Mummies Tell History of a 'Modern' Plague

Findings challenge old assumptions

Ancient Informant: Nubian mummies help scientists learn about the spread of schistosomiasis, a disease caused by parasitic worms.
Dennis Van Gerven/Special

Cercariae of Schistosoma mansoni

CDC/Dr. Sulzer

Mummies from along the Nile are revealing how age-old irrigation techniques may have boosted the plague of schistosomiasis, a waterborne parasitic disease that infects an estimated 200 million people today.

An analysis of mummies from Nubia, a former kingdom that was located in present-day Sudan, provides details for the first time about the prevalence of the disease across populations in ancient times, and how human alteration of the environment during that era may have contributed to its spread. The American Journal of Physical Anthropology is publishing the study, led by Amber Campbell Hibbs 11PhD. 

About 25 percent of mummies in the study dated to about 1,500 years ago were found to have Schistosoma mansoni, a species of schistosomiasis associated with more modern-day irrigation canals that collect standing water.

“Often in the case of prehistoric populations, we tend to assume that they were at the mercy of the environment and that their circumstances were a given,” says Campbell Hibbs. “Our study suggests that, just like people today, these ancient individuals were capable of altering the environment in ways that impacted their health.”

The study was coauthored by Emory anthropologist George Armelagos; William Secor, an epidemiologist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; and Dennis Van Gerven, an anthropologist at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

“We hope that understanding the impact of schistosomiasis in the past may help in finding ways to control what is one of the most prevalent parasitic diseases in the world today,” Campbell Hibbs says.

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