The Mystery of This 500-Year Old Mummy Is Only Beginning To Be Solved

For more than a century, no one in Germany knew where this mummy came from

Photo: Panzer et al., PLoS One

In 1904, a new mummy showed up in Munich, Germany. The mummy—a female—had an intricately plaited hair arrangement tied into place with what might have once been brightly colored ribbon. She was curled into a fetal positon, mouth agape and eyes closed. She became part of the collection of the Anatomical Institute of the Ludwig-Maximilians University and was labeled with an identification number: #817/1904. 

Decades later, when the mummy was transferred to the Bavarian State Archaeological Collection in 1970, her physical description and ID number were still virtually all that were known about her.

No one at the museum knew where the mysterious young woman had come from. Some researchers speculated she died during the Middle Ages and was of European origin—a bog body recovered from somewhere nearby. Perhaps the truth of her origins was lost in World War II, when the mummy had lost her legs below the knee and suffered other damage. Perhaps her paperwork had been burned up or was misplaced. Possibly her story was never written down to begin with.

Recently, a team of German researchers decided it was time to solve this mummy's mystery. They doubted the bog body theory. But where had she really come from? Why had she died? 

The team performed a full-body CT scan on the mummy, examined tissue samples microscopically, analyzed the fibers of her hair, and dated one strand using radiocarbon analysis. They looked for traces of psychoactive substances or other drugs and investigated DNA samples for traces of parasites. 

The woman, they report in PLoS One, was not from Europe at all. Their analysis revealed that she ate plants and fish that most likely came from the coast of Peru. The ribbons in her hair most likely were spun with llama or alpaca fur. Her skull shape and bone type further pointed towards their conclusion: the mummy came from South America. 

The woman lived about 500 years ago, meaning she was most likely Incan. CT scans, the researchers write, revealed that she suffered "a severe mid-face injury" that indicated "several massive beats with a blunt force." The shape of those injuries pointed to a rounded bat-like object, they write, which corresponds with weapons known to be used by the Incans. The mummy, in other words, could have been the victim of ritual sacrifice, when she was only 20 to 25 years old. "It remains highly speculative, although not impossible, that our young lady was subjected to a ritual murder," they write. 

But they also found that she suffered from a surprisingly advanced case of Chagas disease—a parasitic illness endemic to South America that can cause heart failure and severe weakness. She likely picked up the infection in infancy, they think. Under these circumstances, she might have been chosen as a sacrificial victim "because she was already on the brink of death," LiveScience writes

As for how she wound up in Europe, that remains a mystery. The authors point out that the Bavarian Princess Therese von Bayern made a trip to Peru in 1898. Her own records of that journey indicate that she brought two mummies back with her to Europe. It could be that one of those mummies belonged to Princess Therese. But that's a whole other mystery.

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