Moderators: Dr. Marvin Allison and Dr. Enrique Gerszten
Section 3 -
Environmental Paleopathology in South American Mummies
Enrique Gerszten and Marvin J. Allison
Virginia Commonwealth University
Medical College of Virginia Campus
Richmond , Virginia , USA
A great proportion of workers in the United States are exposed to occupational health risks and
accidents. In the developing countries this figure is much larger as a result of more women and children
joining the working class. The magnitude of illness related to environmental exposure today is difficult
to ascertain. In pre-Columbian and colonial Andean America a series of risks have been found, most of
which are still prevalent in the modern Indian populations in the same areas.
Mining has at least a 3,000-year history in the Andean Americas before the arrival of the Europeans.
Extensive use of gold, silver and copper occurred and was carried to perfection by the Inca culture. The
oldest known miner was the "green man" who was killed in a cave-in while he was working on a vein of
copper in a cave. His body was found with all of his tools in 1948, and he was on display for many years
in the New York Museum of Natural History. They involved most of the Andean Indian population. After
the Spanish had finished looting all the mined metal of the Inca Empire. The Spanish had retained the
labor tax ("mita") of the Incas. This tax was assigned to a geographic area and was basically three
months of work for the Inca every seven years. Colonial forced labor due to this tax soon decimated the
Indian population, and the 3-month period was increased to 9 months, to pay the geographic tax as the
population was killed in the mines. Some areas had no one to fill the tax requirements as Indians died
in the mines or fled from their homes to escape the tax. Miners were often found as far away as 1,000
kilometers and were obligated to walk to their assigned mine without pay until they started to work. The
early mining, prior to the use of the amalgamation process, exposed the miners to accidental lead
poisoning and trauma from the refining process. The discovery of mercury in 1567 lead to a new toxicity
from the mercury mining itself and the introduction of the patio process for refining the silver. A mild
form of mercury poisoning was seen 1,000 years earlier when pigmented mercury salts were used to paint
the face. Each miner had a daily quota of ore, which over the years was gradually increased to the point
where it was so heavy that it produced diaphragmatic hernias, some of which were fatal due to trapping of
the small intestine resulting in a fatal gangrene. Miners who were forced to work in the mines over six
months usually died from inhaling the ore that produced a fatal pneumoconiosis with a superimposed
The Camarones Valley in Northern Chile runs from east to west with a small river formed by melting
snow from the highland volcanoes. These active volcanoes spewed out arsenic, which soon found its way
into the rivers that were used as a source of drinking water for the inhabitants. Plans were made to
build a fishing port where this valley emptied into the Pacific, and the government asked the University
of Tarapaca to remove the archaeological material from the area of the port's construction. One cemetery
had a number of well-preserved mummies who had been part of the Inca Empire and were taxed to supply the
Incas with copper, hot peppers, and other costal agricultural products. The male mummies had harpoons
and fishing material of a costal people, and they painted their faces with red ochre. The Inca called
them 'puquinas" after the Quechua word "puca" meaning red. There were females among the mummies but a
notable lack of children. One of the males had elegant Inca clothing but his other equipment was costal
suggesting that he was a chief and the clothes were a gift from the Incas. Autopsies were done on these
mummies, and they were all found to have high amounts of arsenic in their bodies, with visible hypo- and
hyper- arsenic pigmentation of their skin as well as lesions in their internal organs. They were
obviously drinking the river water, which was loaded with arsenic as were the shrimp found in the river.
A study was done on the modern inhabitants who were drinking the water and living much as their ancient
relatives. They had identical arsenic content in their bodies and in both groups one case of cancer due
to the arsenic was found. The interesting fact was that arsenic free springs are available throughout
the valley, but the people said that the river water tasted better.
The pre-Columbian people had several additional forms of trauma. Prior to weaving cloth from wool or
cotton, (about 5,000 years ago) the Andean Indians wet "totora" reed and macerated it with stones to free
the fibers. They then stripped out the fibers with their teeth to make a type of clothing used to cover
the genitals. This use of the teeth as a tool produced severe pressure resulting in the formation of a
benign tumor at the roots of the molars and excessive wear on the crowns.
Several cultural groups used a large basket knows as a "capacho" which was carried by a tumpline to
the forehead. The weight of the loaded basket put a severe strain on the frontal bone causing an early
closure of the frontal sutures. Pressure was also heavy on the cervical vertebrae causing premature
Other societies had a marine economy that relied heavily upon shellfish. Their recovery from the sea
were done by males, which resulted in the early closure of the ear canals with exostoses due to repeated
ear infections. Woman had an extra facet on the distal tibia from working in a squatting position.
Possibly they were cleaning the shellfish brought by the men to the beaches.
- Allison, Marvin J., Leonardo Figueroa, Blago Razmilic and Mariluz Gonzalez: Arcenicismo Cronico en el Norte Grande Chileno: Dialogo Andino 14/15, 159-168, 1996.
- Gerszten, E., Allison M.J., Munizaga J., and Klurfeld D.: Diaphragmatic hernia of the Stomach in a Peruvian Mummy: Bull N.Y. Acad. Med. 52:601-604, 1976.
- Allison, M.J., Pezzia, A., and Gerszten E., Giffler, R.F., and Mendoza, D.: Aspiration Pneumonia Due to Teeth. A report of two cases 950 AD and 1973 AD. South Med. J. 67:479-483, 1974,
- Munizaga , J., Allison, M.J., Gerszten, E.: Pneumoconiosis in Miners from a 16th Century Mining Community: Bull. N.Y. Acad. Med. 51:1281-1293, 1975.
- Ashworth, J.T., Allison, M.J., Gerszten, E., and Pezzia, A.: The Pubic Scars of Gestation and Parturition in a Group of Pre-Columbian and Colonial Mummies. Amer. J. Phy. Anthrop. 45:85-89, 1979.