Mummy of a 900-year-old Russian "polar princess"

Viruses Sleeping in Mummies—Could Ancient Corpses Lead to Modern Epidemics?

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The rise of agriculture and urban settlements allowed for thousands, even millions, of potential hosts to gather in the same place, meaning that a virus which easily spreads and quickly kills its hosts can survive for a long time since there are plenty of hosts to which it can spread once the current host is dead. For this reason, such diseases are unlikely to be found in mummies pre-dating the rise of agriculture or large permanent settlements. A Neanderthal virus, for example, would probably involve either a long, slow progression of the disease, as in the case of leprosy or yaws, or it would be nonlethal, as in the case of the common cold.

Mummies that originated from dense population centers that formed in the last 10,000 years, on the other hand, are more likely to contain pathogens that cause epidemics and even pandemics. No viable viruses have been found in mummies that could pose a hazard to humans, though archaeologists have suggested that excavators take caution when handling a mummy in case such an event does occur.

So, it is unlikely that a disease will be revived from a mummy and cause an epidemic, but if such an event does occur, it will most likely involve a body mummified in a cold, dry climate. Furthermore, it will most likely be from a mummy that formed within the last 10,000 years when large population centers emerged.

Top image: Mummy of a 900-year-old Russian "polar princess". (Image: The Siberian Times )

By Caleb Strom

References

Reardon, Sara. "Smallpox watch."  Nature 509.7498 (2014): 22.

Shoham, Dany. "Viral pathogens of humans likely to be preserved in natural ice."  Life in Ancient Ice  (2005): 208-226.

Lewin, Peter K. "Mummified, frozen smallpox: Is it a threat?."  JAMA 253.21 (1985): 3095-3095.

Biagini, Philippe, et al. "Variola virus in a 300-year-old Siberian mummy."  New England Journal of Medicine  367.21 (2012): 2057-2059.

Ng, Terry Fei Fan, et al. "Preservation of viral genomes in 700-y-old caribou feces from a subarctic ice patch."  Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences  111.47 (2014): 16842-16847.

Legendre, Matthieu, et al. "Thirty-thousand-year-old distant relative of giant icosahedral DNA viruses with a pandoravirus morphology."  Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences  111.11 (2014): 4274-4279.

Legendre, Matthieu, et al. "In-depth study of Mollivirus sibericum, a new 30,000-y-old giant virus infecting Acanthamoeba."  Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences  112.38 (2015): E5327-E5335.

Diamond, Jared M.  Guns, germs and steel: a short history of everybody for the last 13,000 years . Random House, 1998.

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