Pre-Columbian mummies in Chile show signs of arsenic poisoning
A team of scientists have discovered that people of numerous pre-Columbian civilizations in northern Chile, including the Incas and the Chinchorro culture, suffered from chronic arsenic poisoning evidenced by certain skin conditions, as well as traces of arsenic in a mummy’s hair and in the soil. It is believed that the poisoning occurred through consumption of contaminated water.
Previous studies had already identified high concentrations of arsenic in the hair samples of mummies from both highland and coastal cultures that lived in and around Chile’s Atacama Desert between 500 and 1450 AD. It was suspected that this may be caused by consumption of contaminated water, but the methods that were used could not determine whether the people had ingested arsenic or whether arsenic in the soil leached into their hair after they were buried, Live Science reports.
In the new study, published in the journal Analytical Chemistry, scientists used more advanced methods, including multispectral imaging, to analyze the skin, hair, and clothes, as well as the soil encrusting a 1,000- to 1,500-year-old mummy from the Tarapacá Valley in Chile's Atacama Desert. Their tests revealed a uniform, radial distribution of arsenic in the hair. If the hair had been contaminated from arsenic in the soil, the toxic element would have only coated the surface. Analysis of the soil also revealed much lower concentrations of arsenic than that found in the hair.
The results enabled the scientists to conclude that high concentration of arsenic in the mummy's hair came from drinking arsenic-laced water and, possibly, eating plants irrigated with the toxic water.
In Chile, you have these sediments that are rich in arsenic because of copper-mining activities in the highlands," which expose arsenic and other pollutants, said lead study author Ioanna Kakoulli, an archaeological scientist at the University of California, Los Angeles. "When it rains, the arsenic can leach out into the rivers.
The team is now using the same method to determine whether the ancient people of the Tarapacá Valley used hallucinogenic drugs, as some individuals were buried with exotic Amazonian seeds and various hallucinogenic paraphernalia. If the people buried with the items didn't use the hallucinogens, it would suggest they were shamans or doctors who administered the hallucinogenic plants to others.
Featured image: The mummy tested for arsenic poisoning. Credit: Ioanna Kakoulli, UCLA