It’s 1949, and an earthquake is rumbling through the city of Guano, Ecuador, rattling the walls of a 16th-century convent until they suddenly crack open. And inside the ancient facades hide some gruesome secrets. First, they find the remains of a rat, and then, they discovery a human mummy.
Miraculously, the mummy emerges almost perfectly intact, even though it has spent over 400 years resting among the rubble. Fortunately, you see, its placement has kept it protected from the insects that would have hastened decomposition. And decades later, these well-preserved remains will prove pivotal to scientists, who will discover that they could be a huge clue in the realm of medical research.
In 2019 scientists realized that the mummy’s mangled toes and fingers actually show signs of deformity. More specifically, the 400-year-old body has the tell-tale signifiers of arthritis. And experts hope that these ancient joints may in fact help them find the cure for the disease in modern times.
According to the Arthritis Foundation, over a million Americans suffer from rheumatoid arthritis. The condition confuses the immune system, which normally wards off viruses, bacteria and other unwanted elements. But with rheumatoid arthritis, it begins to attack perfectly healthy parts of the body, causing damage to the joints.
Then, under attack from the immune system, joints become inflamed, and their surrounding tissue becomes thicker. This in turn causes swelling and pain in the affected areas, which, over time, creates actual damage to the cartilage. And from there, joints and bones get closer, reducing their mobility, misshaping them and further heightening the discomfort that’s associated with rheumatoid arthritis.
Individuals who suffer from rheumatoid arthritis typically experience discomfort in their knees, elbows, wrists, hands or feet. Interestingly, the pain usually affects both sides of the body. So, if someone’s left wrist aches because of the disease, then the right one is likely to hurt, too. Other symptoms include joint stiffness for around half an hour in the morning, a lack of appetite and a low-level fever.
Interestingly, experts still don’t understand the root cause of rheumatoid arthritis. Research, however, points to genetic predispositions, hormones and environmental characteristics as reasons that the immune system can malfunction in this way. And when it comes to the first of these possible causes, the presence of a DNA marker called HLA can make it five times more likely that a person will develop the condition.
Secondly, women’s hormones may be a factor, since females count for about 70 percent of rheumatoid arthritis sufferers. Research has also explored potential links between the condition and obesity as well as the body’s stress response when faced with trauma – both physical and emotional. Finally, environmental factors such as insecticides, smoking and pollution may also contribute.
Unfortunately, as of right now, no cure exists for rheumatoid arthritis. But experts do have several treatment methods that can help soothe the pain that comes with it. One strategy, for instance, is to quell inflammation; without flare-ups, doctors consider their patients to be in remission. And to do so, they may recommend joint replacement surgery or medications to soothe the discomfort.
Still, doctors and scientists continue their quest to cure rheumatoid arthritis. And believe it or not, a mummy that was discovered in Ecuador after an earthquake in August 1949 could be the key to unlocking the mystery. As the quake shook the streets of Guano – a village in the country’s Chimborazo Province – the force split open the walls of the Asuncion de Guano convent.
Within the 16th-century walls, the mummy reposed inside a giant clay jar, with a rat – also mummified – lying beside him. The style and location of the burial protected the remains from decomposition by insects, since they couldn’t infiltrate the container. Plus, the church walls largely kept out heat and humidity, which also helped to keep the body in good shape.
While this mummy’s burial inside a church walls may seem odd to us, to experts, it made total sense. That’s because researchers believe that the remains are of one Fray Lázaro de Santofimia. In the 16th century, Santofimia journeyed from Spain to Ecuador to share his Catholic beliefs – as well as food and other forms of aid – with the indigenous population.
In addition, Santofimia served as the guardian of the Asunción de Guano convent for seven years from 1565. And this is possibly how he found his final resting place within the church’s walls. According to the website Ancient Origins, “He may have been buried there so ‘his soul could roam around and always be there looking over’ the local people.”
However, Philippe Charlier, who is an accomplished pathologist, thinks that the mummy may have an even more important story to tell. Because while Santofimia’s life ‒ and death ‒ were, of course, fascinating, his bones could potentially change history. Charlier is studying the Ecuadorian remains, having performed similar procedures on the bodies of philosopher René Descartes and French Revolution figurehead Maximilien de Robespierre.
Plus, in 2018, Charlier had the opportunity to debunk an infamous conspiracy theory: that Adolf Hitler didn’t kill himself and instead secretly fled Germany after Word War II. The pathologist claimed to have studied the former dictator’s teeth and proved definitively that he succumbed to cyanide poisoning and a self-inflicted shot to the head.
With the Guano mummy, though, proving its identity is just one of Charlier’s goals. Initially, the pathologist told Ecuadorian newspaper El Telégrafo that he didn’t think the body could be that of Santofimia. Why? Because the remains are clothed in garments that are completely different to those that a 16th-century monk would have worn, the pathologist claimed.
“The clothing religious men wore during colonial times was thick like jute. Yet the mummy’s clothing has buttons and is made of a delicate fabric,” Charlier explained. He will confirm his initial hypotheses with both DNA and carbon-14 testing, the latter of which will also decipher the age of the body found in the Guano church.
Charlier will also use samples of the mummy’s hair for toxicological tests, which will not only paint a clearer picture of who the man was, but also of the Andean province in which he lived. To that end, even the mummified mouse will go under the pathologist’s microscope. The rodent may have carried illnesses that could have killed the mummified individual or others in the town, after all.
In the initial stages of Charlier’s research, he did make some interesting discoveries. Although the mummy’s dress didn’t match that of a monk, his final resting place came with an interesting accessory. You see, the chin had a scarf tied around it, which at first appeared to have had ceremonial associations.
However, Charlier also found a quarter-inch-long channel within the mummy’s chin. This he believes had formed after an abscess in the man’s jaw filled with pus. And the pathologist subsequently wondered if an unpleasant issue had caused his death. Perhaps the infection had spread from the mouth into the blood, the skin and, eventually, the brain.
The pathologist’s first examination also revealed that the man had dealt with another ailment during his life: rheumatoid arthritis. He had a rather extreme case, though, as his toes and fingers appeared severely deformed – even in their mummified state. In finding this, as Charlier told the AFP, he knew that the remains are “extremely important for the history of illness.”
That’s because, as Charlier put it to the Daily Mail in January 2019, “[Rheumatoid arthritis] is a common disease now. But its home is in America, before the arrival of Christopher Columbus [in 1492].” The mummy, of course, died in the 1500s – just one century after the explorer made landfall on the continent.
And, according to Charlier, the mummy’s case of arthritis will be an important one to study. Why? Well, the remains come from an incredibly pivotal moment in history, when Europeans began to settle overseas.“The mummy of Guano may be the missing link that will allow us to understand how this disease became global, [through] the confrontation between two worlds,” he said.
In order for Charlier to perform his initial analysis and gather samples, he had access to the mummy over a two-day period. Yet the town of Guano didn’t have the investigative resources that the pathologist needed. So he and his team moved the remains to the Ecuadorian capital of Quito in a coffin made of sponge.
From the body, Charlier collected bits of tissue and bone with which he could perform DNA tests, carbon-14 dating and the genetic analysis that may help doctors better understand the origins of rheumatoid arthritis. He later described to El Ciudadano how well-preserved the mummy was.
Charlier said, “[The mummy] doesn’t fall apart or disintegrate. There is no humidity or mold; it’s perfect.” Shockingly, this included more than just the mummy’s skeleton and clothing. CT scans revealed that many of the man’s organs were still intact, including the heart, brain, kidneys and some of the lungs.
After Charlier’s sample-gathering mission in early 2019, he faced a six-month wait for the results of his tests – and potential answers about a worldwide disease – to come back. And in the meantime, the scientist said that this case showed exactly why he has dedicated his career to studying bodies and remains.
Talking to the Daily Mail, Charlier said, “I do not work on the dead because death interests me. I work on the dead because they have a lot to tell us.” But the Guano mummy is just one example of a person whose remains have the potential to unlock the mystery of a particular disease.
In the 16th century, halfway around the world from the Guano mummy, a child aged just two passed away. Their remains later found a final resting place in Naples’ Basilica of San Domenico Maggiore in Italy. Rather than decomposing, though, the body naturally mummified, as the church’s conditions proved perfect for such a phenomenon.
We typically envision mummies as wrapped and sealed in coffins, which are then placed deep inside tombs. All of this is done to preserve their bodies for centuries to come. A natural mummy’s skin and organs remain intact for just as long, however, because they were interred in conditions that just happen to preserve them. Typically, this means they end up in a freezing cold, incredibly dry or oxygen-deprived location.
And all of these factors help to explain why excavators uncover most natural mummies in glaciers, deserts or bogs. With that in mind, then, a church in Naples wouldn’t appear to have the right conditions for transforming a body into a mummy. But the Basilica of San Domenico Maggiore happened to be very dry, thus perfectly preserving the two-year-old’s remains.
So, in the 1980s scientists took a closer look at the remains and noticed something: a mysterious rash. To them, it looked surprisingly similar to smallpox. And under a microscope, the scientists thought they could, in fact, see the virus that causes the disease, as its telltale egg shape was visible in the remains.
Three decades later, though, this hypothesis came into question when another mummy from around the same time period also presented with smallpox. Comparing the DNA from both sets of remains revealed that the two-year-old hadn’t suffered from the disease after all. In fact, he actually had hepatitis B in his system.
Nowadays, people have a one-in-three chance of contracting hepatitis B, and approximately 350 million individuals have the virus already. It spreads through the contact of bodily fluids or blood and can cause permanent damage to the liver in the long-term. To that end, chronic hepatitis B has no cure, although there is a vaccine available.
In the case of the infant mummy, hepatitis B could explain why his body still showed signs of an all-over rash. Researchers theorized that the child may have actually had Gianotti-Crosti syndrome – a skin-based reaction to infection by a virus. And one of its most common causes just happens to be hepatitis B. From there, though, they made an even more surprising discovery.
An infant mummy presenting with hepatitis B is a surprise in and of itself. More shocking, though, was the fact that the strain of the virus appeared virtually unchanged from the version that affects people now. And at first, the experts were nonplussed. Indeed, most viruses evolve and adapt over time, so an older sample should have looked different to a modern one.
So the scientists got to work, testing to see if the infant mummy had somehow been contaminated with the virus post-mortem. The painstaking process took two years to complete, but it proved that the body had, in fact, contracted hepatitis B while alive. So, the virus really hadn’t evolved much over the past 500 years.
Researcher Edward Holmes told The Verge that this made sense, considering the known behaviors of hepatitis B as well as its short, rigid makeup. “On the one hand, this makes the virus very small and efficient. But on the other, it means that very few mutations actually work,” he said.
And even though the infant mummy didn’t show a wildly different form of hepatitis B, the researchers’ findings have still proved important. In a press release following the study, evolutionary geneticist Hendrik Poinar said, “The more we understand about the behavior of past pandemics and outbreaks, the greater our understanding of how modern pathogens might work and spread.”
And with a better understanding of the behaviors of hepatitis B and other pathogens, Poinar said that scientists and medical professionals could “ultimately help in their control.” Of course, the same goes for the Guano mummy. His well-preserved, arthritis-riddled digits may yet unlock a cure for the autoimmune disease.