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24 April 2010
Arsenic-laced water may have killed ancient peoples in Chile

Poison-laced drinking water killed some of the world's oldest mummies, which are found in the harsh northern deserts of Chile, a new study says. "I believe [these] ancient people were continuously exposed to arsenic by drinking contaminated water with high arsenic levels [that is] endemic to the Camarones region," said study leader Bernardo Arriaza of Chile's Universidad de Tarapacá de Arica.
     The Chinchorro, who wouldn't have been aware they were ingesting the tasteless and invisible toxin, may have suffered from skin, lung, bladder, and kidney cancers, among other serious effects of long-term arsenic exposure. After they died, the poison victims were sometimes mummified, their internal organs removed and replaced by soil and reeds. Some 7,000 years ago the Chinchorro became the first society known to practice mummification, which transcended social class and included adults, children, and even fetuses. Arriaza hypothesizes that fetuses and newborns were especially susceptible to arsenic. Because the earliest mummies are fetuses and infants, he suggests that high miscarriage rates may have inspired the mummification process.
     Arriaza and colleagues studied hair samples from 46 ancient mummies previously found in five different sites throughout the arid valley. The results showed that nine of every ten Chinchorro mummies - which ranged from 7,000 to 600 years old - had hair with arsenic levels of more than one microgram of arsenic per gram of hair, which is high enough to cause health problems.
     Metals such as arsenic are common in the region's bedrock and surrounding volcanic slopes, and the poisonous metals are washed by seasonal snowmelt into the rivers that provide drinking water to people downstream. Once it enters the body, arsenic accumulates in keratin tissue, which exists in human hair and nails. That's why a single strand of mummified hair preserves a record of its owner's exposure to toxic elements.

Source: National Geographc News (13 April 2010)

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