Diseases of the spine in South American mummies

Neurosurgery. 2001 Jan;48(1):208-13. doi: 10.1097/00006123-200101000-00039.


Objective: The skulls and spinal columns of people from ancient civilizations, which frequently are found in a preserved state at archeological sites, can provide a large amount of information about these individuals' physical condition through paleopathological investigation.

Methods: This study represents the examination of more than 700 human remains dating back more than 8000 years that were recovered from archaeological excavations in the Andean region of southern Peru and northern Chile.

Results: Examples of congenital malformations, degenerative processes, infectious diseases, neoplasias, and traumatic diseases were discovered. Congenital anomalies such as spina bifida occulta were relatively common in these populations. No cases of meningomyelocele were discovered. The most common pathological findings were degenerative changes of the vertebral bodies. Large cervical and lumbar osteophytes were identified in some remains. Several cases of cervical spondylosis were determined to be the result of an occupational disease resulting from carrying heavy loads on the back. These heavy loads were supported by wearing around the forehead a tumpline, known as a capacho. The most common infectious disease process in the spine was due to tuberculosis. The diagnosis was made by radiological and histopathological studies, and in several cases the organism Mycobacterium tuberculosis was identified in the soft tissues. Metastatic lesions on the vertebral bodies were identified in a single case. Examples of traumatic spinal injury were rare. Compression fractures were noted infrequently.

Conclusion: Diseases of the spinal column in the ancient inhabitants of the Andean region of South America were similar to those that affect the present-day population of that area.

Publication types

  • Historical Article
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Child
  • Female
  • History, Ancient
  • Humans
  • Infections / history
  • Infections / pathology
  • Male
  • Meningomyelocele / history
  • Meningomyelocele / pathology
  • Middle Aged
  • Mummies / history
  • Mummies / pathology*
  • Paleopathology
  • Radiography
  • South America
  • Spinal Diseases / history
  • Spinal Diseases / pathology*
  • Spinal Dysraphism / history
  • Spinal Dysraphism / pathology
  • Spinal Injuries / history
  • Spinal Injuries / pathology
  • Spinal Neoplasms / history
  • Spinal Neoplasms / pathology
  • Spine / diagnostic imaging
  • Spine / pathology