Nobody wants to die, but when we do we hope for two things: that it’s painless, and that a thousand years later somebody doesn’t study your remains and tell your ancestors “this guy was heavily constipated”. No such luck for one man, who archaeologists discovered in 2019 had suffered a fatal case of constipation, swelling his colon up to six times its normal diameter.
The Skiles mummy was found in the Lower Pecos Canyonlands of South Texas. Up to 150 mummified bodies have been found in the area, but one adult male from around 1,200 years ago attracted particular attention for study due to how well-preserved his naturally mummified remains were. As well as having a full head of hair – rarely found in the other mummified remains – he had “a very large desiccated fecal mass, which encompasses the majority of what would have been the gastrointestinal tract”, according to the authors of one study.
Given the size of the backup, the fecal matter allowed researchers to examine the man’s diet in the months prior to his death. Meanwhile, the hair allowed the team to analyze his nutritional uptake. Comparing this diet to typical diets of the time – inferred partly through the fecal matter of other individuals – several teams were able to discover a surprising amount about his final months.
This included that he died of parasite-borne Chagas disease, was unable to absorb proteins adequately in the months preceding his death, and that he was likely rendered immobile by his condition. This is significant because “someone would have had to bring him food resources, as well as attending to his daily needs”. I.e. he received care from the community as he was dying.
Among the finds was that he had consumed an unusual amount of grasshoppers, adding to evidence that he had been well-cared for at the end of his 35-45-year-long life.
“They were taking off the legs,” Karl Reinhard, professor in the School of Natural Resources at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, explained in a statement. “So they were giving him mostly the fluid-rich body – the squishable part of the grasshopper. In addition to being high in protein, it was pretty high in moisture. So it would have been easier for him to eat in the early stages of his megacolon experience.”
Though cared for, the man’s death would not have been pleasant. Investigating the fecal matter with scanning electron microscopy, Reinhard and team found phytoliths – microscopic plant matter that usually survives the digestion process.
“The phytoliths were split open, crushed. And that means there was incredible pressure that was exerted on a microscopic level in this guy’s intestinal system, which highlights even more the pathology that was exhibited here,” Reinhard added. “I think this is unique in the annals of pathology – this level of intestinal blockage and the pressure that’s associated with it.”
The study is published in the International Journal of Paleopathology.
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