Could a Mummy Hold the Key to An Arthritis Cure?

“Arthritis” is not only an ancient word – it’s also an ancient disease. Before humans even existed, dinosaurs may have dealt with arthritis. A team of researchers from the University of Bristol in the United Kingdom found an “arthritis-like” condition in the 150-million-year-old remains of a dinosaur called Pliosaur. Dinosaur bones from 90 million years ago unearthed near Brussels, Belgium, identified as Igoaunodon bones, showed evidence of osteoarthritis (OA) in multiple fossils. Arthritis has also been identified in skeletons of the Tyrannosaurus rex.

RA in the stone age?

As for humans, signs of arthritis are first visible in the remains of our Neanderthal cousins, who lived 250,000 to 35,000 years ago. Joint erosion consistent with rheumatoid arthritis (RA) has been found in the remains of Native Americans in what is now Tennessee, from as far back as 4500 BC. There is also historical evidence that the concept of arthritis may have existed even in the early centuries of Egyptian civilization.

Arthritis was also one of the earliest disorders to be clinically identified and characterized by ancient healers. References to arthritis are found in texts as far back as 4500 BC, and a text from 123 AD first describes symptoms that appear similar to rheumatoid arthritis. A quote from Hippocrates from over 2,300 years ago – “it is incredible how fast the mischief spreads” – may have been referring to RA. Hippocrates also spoke of gout, another form of arthritis.

A mummy that could potentially have had RA?

Now scientists are studying a mummified body that was discovered in a convent in the town of Guano, Ecuador. The mummy, whose remains date back to the 16th century, was discovered in a large jar after a massive earthquake in August 1949 caused damage to the church’s walls. Researchers believe the mummy was 85 or 90 when he died and was likely a friar and guardian of the convent where his remains were found. The mummy was in a large jar between the convent’s walls, and since it was stored in a cold, dry environment, protected from flies and larvae, the body is well-preserved.

When scientists examined the mummy in January 2019, they determined that its tissues and bones bear the marks of rheumatoid arthritis. The mummy’s hands and feet also show deformations that are typical of RA. Led by French pathologist Dr. Philippe Charlier, the scientists believe this mummy might have the potential to help them understand how RA, which originated in America, became a global disease. Dr. Charlier and his team also believe that further examination of this mummy could uncover a missing link that allows scientists to better understand the origin and natural history of RA.

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  • starscream
    3 weeks ago

    The article says the research has “the potential to help them understand how RA, which originated in America, became a global disease”. Does this mean that it is known that RA only existed in Europe after Columbus even though RA is more prevalent in Northern Europe? My RA flares correlate closely with consumption of nightshades, which Europeans did not eat until the import of potatoes and tomatoes from the US. Sometimes I think RA is punishment for the European conquest of the Americas (at least my version of it). But I never read anywhere before that RA “originated in America”. Where I can I find more information about this?

  • Richard Faust moderator
    3 weeks ago

    Hi starscream. Glad this article resonated with you and you are interested in more information on the etiology of RA. The truth is that because earlier research on the topic was not very rigorous by modern scientific standards there is no one accepted theory of the origin of RA. Some researchers think it is a modern disease, others that it is an ancient disease, while still others adhere the theory presented in this article about the disease moving from the New World to the Old World. This article goes into the historical detail of the theories: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3119866/. It should be noted that this article predates the findings in Tennessee discussed by Mariah, so it will be interesting to see if the New World to Old World theory becomes the dominant one. Best, Richard (RheumatoidArthritis.net Team)

  • Lawrence 'rick' Phillips
    4 weeks ago

    My mom used to say I took after her Mummy. Now I knwo what she was talking about. 🙂

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