Since the discovery of parasite eggs on mummies in the 1920s, scientists have suspected that the Nubians might have been infected by schistosomiasis. Nubia was a former African kingdom that existed from about A.D. 250 to 1400 in what is now northern Sudan.
But researchers generally assumed that the disease in Nubians had been caused by S. haematobium, a close cousin of S. mansoni that causes similar symptoms but that doesn’t require irrigation channels to thrive.
“The snail that transmits S. haematobium thrives better in water that’s moving and well oxygenated and that is not very polluted, whereas the S. mansoni snail does very well in water that’s been standing around and has more yuck in it,” said study first author Amber Campbell Hibbs, who conducted the study while at Emory.
Campbell Hibbs and colleagues examined hundreds of naturally mummified Nubian mummies.
“What happened is they were buried, and it’s so dry that you usually get mummification of the external skin, and sometimes some of the organs.”
An analysis of the mummified skin revealed traces of proteins belonging to S. mansoni—the first proof that the ancient Nubians, or any ancient civilization, were afflicted by schistosomiasis.