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Sat Aug 4, 2012, 07:16 AM

Maiden shows signs of TB-like infection


ILL-FATEDThis Incan girl, known as the Maiden, was sacrificed on top of a South American volcano 500 years ago. New data suggest the girl had an active infection with a bacterium similar to the one that causes tuberculosis

As if being a human sacrifice weren’t bad enough, a teenager may have been fighting off tuberculosis before being killed on top of a South American volcano 500 years ago.

As she climbed to her death, the immune system of a 15-year-old Incan girl known as the Maiden was combating a bacterial infection caused by a type of Mycobacterium, an analysis indicates. Angelique Corthals, a forensic anthropologist at the City University of New York, and colleagues report the findings online July 25 in PLoS One.

La Doncella, as the Maiden is called in Spanish, was one of three children whose mummified remains were found near the summit of Llullaillaco volcano in Argentina in 1999. She, a younger girl and young boy were probably sacrificed in a ritual called Capacocha. But the exact cause of the children’s deaths has remained a mystery; their perfectly preserved mummies show no signs of violent trauma.

Corthals wanted to know whether the children were given a fermented corn drink called chicha, which was used to numb sacrifice victims as part of the Capacocha ritual. The alcohol in the drink would have evaporated almost immediately, but the children might still have traces of corn clinging to their lips, she reasoned. Researchers swabbed blood and saliva from the lips of the Maiden and the boy, and snipped off a small piece of the boy’s blood-soaked cloak for testing using a technique that identifies proteins contained in the samples. The younger girl’s face was damaged by a lightning strike after burial, so the researchers couldn’t include her in the study.

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