A man who lived in the Lower Pecos Canyonlands of Texas sometime between 1,000 and 1,400 years ago may have died of a terrible case of constipation, according to an investigation of his mummified remains.
And during the painful months just before his death, he mainly ate grasshoppers, the researchers found.
Apparently it is Chagas disease, which is caused by a parasite called Trypanosoma cruzi, the man had blocked gastrointestinal tract. That blockage caused his colon to swell to about six times its normal size – a condition called ‘megacolon’. The man was unable to digest food properly and gradually became malnourished, scientists found. The condition would have made it difficult for the man to walk or even eat on his own. The researchers believe that in the last two to three months of his life – family or members of his community – the man helped the man eat by feeding him grasshoppers with their legs removed.
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“So they mainly gave him the moisture-rich body – the compressible part of the grasshopper,” Karl Reinhard, professor in the School of Natural Resources at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, said in a statement from the university. “Not only was it high in protein, but also quite high in moisture. So it would have been easier for him to eat in the early stages of his megacolon experience.”
A man named Guy Skiles found the remains – which, of course, had been preserved and mummified dry conditions – in 1937 in a rock shelter near the junction of the Rio Grande and Pecos Rivers in South Texas. It was kept in a small private museum until 1968, when it was loaned to the Institute of Texan Cultures. Scientific work was done on the mummy in the 1970s and 1980s; and in 1986, a team of scientists described the mummy in an article published in the journal Plains Anthropologist.
More recently, studies with more advanced technologies have opened a dark window to this man’s final months Soil. For example, in 2003 Reinhard’s team reported in the journal Memórias do Instituto Oswaldo Cruz that they found 2.6 pounds (1170 grams) of feces in the mummy, along with an enormous amount of food debris that his body never processed. These findings, along with the size of his colon, led the researchers to conclude that he was severely constipated and suffering from malnutrition because his body was unable to process food properly.
In the new study, Reinhard and his colleagues re-analyzed the remains of the mummy using a scanning electron microscope. That new scan found that his diet consisted largely of grasshoppers in his final months.
The researchers also found evidence in the colon of plant debris called phytolites that showed how “supported” the man would have been. Teensy structures in plant tissues, phytoliths generally survive, unharmed, the adventurous journey through one’s digestive system. That was not the case for this man.
“The phytoliths were split open, crushed. And that means that at a microscopic level, there was incredible pressure on this man’s intestinal tract, further emphasizing the pathology exhibited here,” Reinhard said in the statement. “I think this is unique in the annals of pathology – this level of bowel blockage and the pressure that comes with it.”
The discovery of the locust diet will be published in a chapter of an upcoming book “The Handbook of Mummy Studies(Springer, 2021). The chapter will also publish studies of two other mummies who received special care at the end of their lives. These include a 5 to 6 year old child who died between 500 and 1,000 years ago in Arizona. the last weeks of their lives got fruit from the saguaro cactus.
Originally published on Live Science.