Mummies from along the Nile are revealing how age-old irrigation techniques may have boosted the plague of schistosomiasis, a water-borne parasitic disease that infects an estimated 200 million people today.
An analysis of the mummies from Nubia, a former kingdom that was located in present-day Sudan, provides details for the first time about the prevalence of the disease across populations in ancient times, and how human alteration of the environment during that era may have contributed to its spread.
The American Journal of Physical Anthropology is publishing the study, led by Emory graduate student Amber Campbell Hibbs, who recently received her PhD in anthropology.
About 25 percent of mummies in the study dated to about 1,500 years ago were found to have Schistosoma mansoni, a species of schistosomiasis associated with more modern-day irrigation techniques.
"Often in the case of prehistoric populations, we tend to assume that they were at the mercy of the environment, and that their circumstances were a given," says Campbell Hibbs. "Our study suggests that, just like people today, these ancient individuals were capable of altering the environment in ways that impacted their health."
The study was co-authored by Emory anthropologist George Armelagos; William Secor, an epidemiologist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; and Dennis Van Gerven, an anthropologist at the University of Colorado at Boulder.
"We hope that understanding the impact of schistosomiasis in the past may help in finding ways to control what is one of the most prevalent parasitic diseases in the world today," Campbell Hibbs says.
Schistosomiasis is caused by parasitic worms that live in certain types of freshwater snails. The parasite can emerge from the snails to contaminate fresh water, and then infect humans whose skin comes in contact with the water.
Infection can cause anemia and chronic il
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