TCS Daily


The Mummy Speaks

By Sallie Baliunas - August 25, 2004 12:00 AM

Ancient remains preserved intentionally or accidentally tell much about past human diseases caused by indoor air pollution from poor quality energy supplies and equipment. Yet today in sub-Saharan Africa and regions of Asia more than 90 percent of households lack electricity and must rely on hazardously burning coal, wood, vegetation or dried animal dung in open hearths or poorly ventilated stoves for their cooking and heating needs.

Daily, thousands of Africans and Asians die as a result of that energy poverty. The irritating particles released by the unvented and unfiltered indoor biofuel burning lodge in the lungs and trigger pulmonary disease.

Globally, such indoor air pollution causes 36 percent of lower respiratory infection and 22 percent of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, according to the World Health Report 2003, Shaping the Future. Lower respiratory tract infections ranked as the second leading cause of deaths in children in poor countries worldwide in 2002, at a rate of about 18 percent or 1.8 million children. Lower respiratory tract infections are, the report notes, one of the leading causes of childhood mortality in sub-Saharan Africa.

The earlier disease burden from indoor air pollution in past cultures is revealed from preserved human remains by modern archaeological pathologists. Ancient Egyptian mummies have proven especially helpful in that task.

Mummification rituals, dating back about 4,600 years ago in northeastern Africa, attempted to preserve not only the body in physical resemblance, but also some internal organs. Why? Those Egyptian cultures envisioned the afterlife as a continued voyage of enjoyable earthly activities, so success in the afterlife, it was believed, required a well-preserved physical body, entombed for protection from predation and accompanied by food and useful artifacts like dolls that would later grow food for the dead. By the period of the New Kingdom (ca. 1550 to 1086 B.C.E.) mummification of the dead had advanced far enough in technology to retain soft tissues and body likeness three thousand years later.

To mummify a body, those trained in the art began by making an incision in the left side of the lower torso and removing the stomach, intestines, liver and lungs. The brain would also be removed through a nostril. The heart was believed to manage the body, so it was left in place to do its work in the afterlife. The otherwise emptied shell would be packed with a dessicating chemical, natrol, made of sodium carbonate and sodium bicarbonate.

Within six weeks the corpse had dried and was packed, coated with resin and linen, then wrapped with linen bandages. The removed internal organs were placed into four stone canopic jars, the stoppers of each being painted with the likeness of a different god who guarded the contents. This process continued approximately until the end of the New Kingdom, after which the internal organs were sometimes wrapped and packed into the dried body.

In the 19th Dynasty, privilege surrounded Henutmehyt (ca. 1295 - 1186 B.C.E.), the chantress of the god Amun. She survived to old age and was buried in Thebes, and her remains and tomb contents are now cared for by the British Museum. Henutmehyt's wealth granted us an elaborate depiction of burial rituals that have survived the worst destructive forces through time. The innermost of her nested, human-shaped coffins is gilded everywhere except where artificial eyes, eyebrows and hair create an eternal, youthful image of beauty for her afterlife journey.

The soft tissue remains in Henutmehyt's canopic jars confirm both her long life, and also that she was afflicted with anthracosis -- the accumulation of carbonaceous particles in the lungs. The disease was likely a result of breathing indoor air polluted by open fires for cooking and heating. Thus, despite her wealth, Henutmehyt suffered energy and technology impoverishment three millennia ago compared to that of modern developed economies.

Lung diseases like anthracosis were common ravages until reduced by the use of venting chimneys or home appliances run by natural gas or electricity.

So it is unsurprising that the lungs of the 5,300 year old Tyrolean ice man, whose soft tissues were unintentionally preserved inside his frozen body, were also pocked with anthracosis. Or that the well-preserved ribs of the skeletons buried in the volcanic ash of Vesuvius' eruption and in coastal mud of nearby Herculaneum in 79 C.E. also indicate the occurrence of anthracosis. Or that the Grotta Rossa mummy of ancient Rome shows anthracosis that is relatively advanced for the youth of the body.

The disease is also present in bodies only several centuries old preserved after burial in cold, dry conditions in Greenland.

Today, with half the population of the world still plagued by the unsafe and unhealthy indoor air pollution from burning biofuels such as animal dung and wood, the great need is not for a return to the past. Grace would argue for the promotion of economic growth and with it the adoption of advanced, cleaner energy practices employed in the rest of the world.

Further reading:

The British Museum Book of Ancient Egypt, 1992, edited by Stephen Quirke and Jeffrey Spencer, Thames & Hudson, 240pp.

Mummies in a New Millennium, 2002, edited by Niels Lynnerup, Claus Andreasen and Joel Berglund, Greenland National Museum and Archives and Danish Polar Center, 208pp.

Indoor pollution and respiratory diseases in Ancient Rome, 2000, Luigi Capasso, The Lancet, 356, 1774.


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