Over the next week, UC Davis ophthalmologist William Lloyd will dissect and examine the eyes of two North Chilean mummies for evidence of various diseases and medical conditions. One of the eyes belonged to a boy who was 2 years old when he died 1,000 years ago, and the other is from a female, who was approximately 23 years old when she died 750 years ago.
“The opportunity to analyze two pre-Columbian era mummy eyes is exciting and fascinating,” said Lloyd, an accomplished physician, researcher, professor, author and expert in comparative ophthalmology, which involves the study of the eye across species. Lloyd holds joint appointments in the Departments of Ophthalmology and Vision Science, and Pathology at the UC Davis School of Medicine. “By analyzing these eyes, we hope to determine if their pathology suggests any so-called modern day diseases, like diabetes or high blood pressure.”
It all began when Huck Holz, chief resident in the Department of Ophthalmology and Vision Science, read an article about the founder of modern paleopathology, Arthur Aufderheide, in the May 16 issue of the New Yorker magazine. Paleopathology, the study of ancient diseases, has taken Aufderheide around the globe, salvaging mummies’ organs and tissues in various stages of decomposition. The thin tissues that make up the eye allow it to dehydrate quickly and, because moisture causes decay, most mummies are found with well-preserved eyes.
In the New Yorker article, Aufderheide said that he’s been saving the eyes for the right investigator, someone with the expertise and the commitment to examine them thoroughly. Holz and Lloyd convinced Aufderheide that they were the researchers he’d been waiting for.
During the week of Oct. 17, Lloyd will inspect and examine the eyes. The process involves rehydrating the eyes and optical nerves, preparing the tissues for chemical processing, embedding the tissues in paraffin, slicing the specimens for microscopic viewing, applying stains to highlight selected cellular characteristics, and finally examining the tissues under a microscope. Preliminary findings should be available by the end of the week. Slow rehydration may postpone the findings by a day.
Tests for eye diseases, such as glaucoma and macular degeneration, will be conducted, but Lloyd says there are many more systemic ailments that can be found by examining the eyes.
“During modern-day eye exams we can see signs of diabetes, high blood pressure, various cancers, nutritional deficiencies, fetal alcohol syndrome and even early signs of HIV infection,” said Lloyd. “These same changes are visible under the microscope.”
Both mummies are already known to have recovered from pneumonia. One of the female’s lungs was adherent to her chest wall and both of the young boy’s lungs were adherent to his chest wall.
“This adherence is consistent with a recovery from pneumonia,” said Aufderheide, who is a professor of pathology at the University of Minnesota, Duluth, School of Medicine. “Since we see it on both of the boy’s lungs, he probably had and recovered from pneumonia, twice.”
The child, who was one of the last members of the Tihuanacu culture, also had an inherited cystic disease in his liver.
“We’re not sure if the liver disease is what killed him,” said Aufderheide. “There were a few preserved internal organs, but most of the body was in decay.”
The 23-year-old woman was buried in a seated position, fully clothed in embroidered V-neck wool shirts. She wore sea-lion-hide sandals and on her head, a bandana. Her hair was in two braids. In addition to the pneumonia, she had lice, bad teeth and osteoporosis.
“It’s likely that the young woman’s osteoporosis was caused by a diet that included oxalate-producing plants, which inhibits the body’s ability to assimilate calcium,” said Aufderheide. “Perhaps something in Dr. Lloyd's findings will tell us more about the lives and deaths of these two people.