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Old Disease in the New World

By Jocelyn SelimApril 1, 2002 6:00 AM


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Europeans brought plague and pestilence to the Americas—but maybe not as much of it as historians say. After taking X rays of more than 200 mummies in Peru, imaging specialist Jerry Conlogue of Quinnipiac University found that 10 percent of the bodies showed bone abnormalities characteristic of tuberculosis. That means TB, long considered a disease imported from Europe, was present in the New World 1,000 years ago. Conlogue admits his analysis isn't 100 percent accurate. "But the spines show the signature erosion patterns. It's classic TB." In modern populations there are four instances of moderate TB for every one in which the disease advances enough to affect the bones. If the same statistics held among the pre-Incan peoples of the Andes, over half the population was suffering from the disease—enough to contribute significantly to the culture's decline. Conlogue thinks the moist climate fostered transmission of the disease. His studies suggest the Spanish conquistadors faced a population weakened by a tough lifestyle. "Nearly a quarter of the mummies showed signs of osteoarthritis brought on by heavy labor, there are signs of severe malnutrition, and severe periodontal disease was rampant," he says.


X rays of mummies from precolonial Peru indicate TB preceded the Europeans.Photographs courtesy of Gerald Conlogue/Quinnipiac University

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