Chilean Mummy Has Unexpected Pest

When we think of mummies, we usually think of the Egyptian variety (or of Brendan Fraser, depending on how old you are), but mummification was actually practiced in many cultures worldwide. And it turns out that human bodies weren’t the only things to get mummified; the parasites living on them also got trapped in the bindings!

This means that mummies are a goldmine for scientists looking to document the spread of parasites over time and distance. Recently in Chile, scientists discovered not only head lice, but also pubic lice (commonly called crabs) in mummies around 2,000 years old! This might not be exciting to some, but lice aren’t endemic to South America, which means that people brought them to the new continent. Scientists posit that the little pests hitched a ride on warm human bodies as they crossed the Bering Strait many thousands of years ago.

The amount of lice on the mummies also gives scientists an idea of how bad the infestation was among the human population (hint: it was really bad). It’s possible that the Andean people didn’t have a solution for ridding themselves of the parasites – and that seems to have been the case across many different professions (farmers, herders, etc…) Also, because the lice and their nits are so well preserved in the mummy casings, examining them lends insight into how the species has changed and developed over time. We may not be happy about their companionship, but it seems that lice have been our companions for a long long time.