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Grasshopper Diet Caused Lethal Constipation 1,000 Years Ago

Grasshopper Diet Caused Lethal Constipation 1,000 Years Ago

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A naturally mummified man was found to have had a grasshopper diet for several months before he died. His body was found in 1937 when a young man called Guy Skiles was exploring in a rock-shelter near the junction of the Rio Grande and Pecos Rivers in South Texas. Rummaging around in the sand he discovered a naturally preserved mummy and the mysterious ancient man was transferred to a private museum. Finally, in 1968, the mummy was loaned to the Institute of Texan Cultures.

The mummified man lived in the Lower Pecos Canyonlands sometime between 1,400 and 1,000 years ago and the arid terrain where he was buried caused his body to become naturally mummified. Between the 1970s and 1980s several scientific projects analyzed the discovery, and in 1986 a team of scientists published a detailed paper in the journal of the Plains Anthropologist Society .

The man lived in the Lower Pecos Canyonlands of Texas, pictured here, sometime between 1,400 and 1,000 years ago. The arid area where he was buried caused his body to become naturally mummified. (Karl Reinhard)

The man lived in the Lower Pecos Canyonlands of Texas, pictured here, sometime between 1,400 and 1,000 years ago. The arid area where he was buried caused his body to become naturally mummified. ( Karl Reinhard )

In 2003, Dr. Karl Reinhard, professor in the School of Natural Resources at the University of Nebraska, published a report in the journal Memórias do Instituto Oswaldo Cruz claiming “1,170 grams (2.6 pounds) of feces were discovered compacted within the mummy. Furthermore, “a vast amount of food remains that his body never processed.”

Grasshopper Diet Led to Death by “Megacolon”

The size of the ancient man’s colon led Dr. Reinhard and his team of researchers to conclude that he was “severely constipated” and had suffered malnourishment as his body couldn't properly process foods. Now, in a museum statement by the same professor, about the same mummified remains, he has not only confirmed his earlier finding, that the poor man died from a horrible case of constipation, but according to an article in Live Science with “more advanced technologies the scientists have opened a dark window into this man's last months on Earth.” In conclusion, during the man’s last painful months “he ate mainly grasshoppers.”

The man had a grasshopper diet in the last painful months of his life. (Greg Hume/CC-BY-SA 3.0)

The man had a grasshopper diet in the last painful months of his life. (Greg Hume/ CC-BY-SA 3.0 )

The full story about the man’s “grasshopper diet” will be published in a chapter of a forthcoming book " The Handbook of Mummy Studies " and it will also detail two other studies of a 5- to 6-year-old child who died between 500 and 1,000 years ago. This child was found to have been fed fruit from the saguaro cactus in the final weeks of their life.

In the new book Reinhard and his colleagues present the results of their recent reanalysis of the mummy's remains using electron microscopes, which determined he had died of  “Chagas disease,” caused by the parasite Trypanosoma cruzi that had blocked up his intestines. His colon swelled up as a result of the toxicity “to about six times its normal size” and the scientists described his awful condition as “megacolon.”

He Must Have Been “Hopping Mad” with Pain

The man’s “Megacolon” meant he was unable to digest foods properly. Failing to maintain a constant metabolic state over several months, he eventually became severely malnourished. The researchers think the man’s condition would have made it difficult for him to walk, “or even eat on his own.” It is suggested that in his final months, having had his dignity shattered, his family or community members must have fed him the juicy center part of grasshoppers, “whose legs had been removed.”

Segment of the man’s “Megacolon” that was analyzed in 2016. (Verostick, Bryant & Reinhard/ International Journal of Paleopathology, 2019)

Segment of the man’s “Megacolon” that was analyzed in 2016. ( Verostick, Bryant & Reinhard/ International Journal of Paleopathology, 2019 )

The new book will explain how this diet had been specifically chosen, not only because it was high in protein, but also because it was full of moisture, therefore, “easier for him to eat in the early stages of his megacolon experience.”

The new scans also revealed that the man's colon contained the undigested remains of plants called “phytoliths” - which reaffirmed just how severely constipated the man was when he died. These microscopic structures are made of silica in plant tissues and they persist after plants have decayed. Reinhard said the phytoliths “were split open, crushed,” which means incredible pressure was exerted at a microscopic level within the man’s intestinal system. This level of intestinal blockage, and the pressure that’s associated with it, “is unique in the annals of pathology,” according to the professor.

Top Image: Colon segments of a mummified man who died from a grasshopper diet between 1,400 and 1,000 years ago. Source: Verostick, Bryant & Reinhard/ International Journal of Paleopathology, 2019

By Ashley Cowie

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