Mystery Mummy Was Ritually Murdered

Andreas Nerlich

ScienceShot: Mystery Mummy Was Ritually Murdered

Sid is a freelance science journalist.

A mummy that’s spent the last 110 years in two museums in Munich, Germany, and which was long presumed to have local origins, may actually be a young South American woman who was ritually murdered hundreds of years ago. The remains first appeared in the collection of the Anatomical Institute of Ludwig Maximilian University in 1904—mysteriously, with no specimen number assigned to it and no information about its origins. Researchers had long thought that the dark-skinned mummy (image), which lost its legs and suffered other damage in an air raid during World War II, was a body pulled from one of the bogs nearby, naturally preserved by the acidic, low-oxygen environment there. But the mummy’s plaited braids didn’t match the hairstyle typically seen on Europe’s ancient bog bodies, so researchers—including some at the specimen’s current home, the Bavarian State Archaeological Collection—took a closer look. Carbon dating revealed that the 20- to 25-year-old female had died sometime between 1451 and 1642 C.E. Analyses of carbon and nitrogen isotopes in her tissues suggest that she had lived near the Pacific coast in southern Peru or northern Chile and had eaten a diet rich in corn and seafood, the researchers report today in PLOS ONE. Other evidence the young woman wasn’t European include a triangular “Inca bone” in her skull (seen in about 8% of modern-day South Americans but not in people of European descent) and signs that she had suffered Chagas’ disease (a parasitic infection widespread in modern-day Central and South America but not in ancient or modern-day Europe). CT scans revealed extensive damage to the bones of her face, suggesting that the she had been repeatedly struck there with a blunt object, possibly as part of a ritual murder. Previous studies of other mummies from the region suggest that the ritual murder of young women and female infants was a common practice during that era.

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Posted in Archaeology, Europe, Latin America