Found in crates inside a church in the Hungarian town of Vác, and analyzed in 2015, the 200-year-old bones could represent a milestone in science.
An old Dominican church was filled with researchers in 1994 in the Hungarian city of Vác. Upon opening mysterious crates inside the sacred site, experts were shocked to find very well-preserved remains of 265 individuals.
Not ordinary bones, but surprising mummies. What’s more, they were afflicted with a disease that, for the dead, used to be quite mysterious.
The so-called “TB bacillus” was only discovered by researcher Robert Koch in 1882. The disease is caused by the bacterium Mycobacterium tuberculosis and mainly affects the lungs, causing prolonged coughing, catarrh and fever. However, the people of the 18th century did not know its cause.
A third of the individuals thus died from the disease, without knowing the exact reason. It turns out that 90% of the mummies were affected by tuberculosis, even if the patients didn’t know when they got sick.
And, as the remains were in an excellent state of conservation, this allowed scientists to make a very important discovery for science: it will be possible to better understand the evolution of the disease over the centuries.
Map showing the discovery region and the church that houses the mummies
A sick family
Tuberculosis affected an entire family in the 18th century, which was discovered among the mummies in the boxes. They were the Hausmanns: there was the corpse of their eldest sister, Terézia Hausmann, who died at the age of 28, on December 27, 1797; and there was also the mother’s mummy, name unknown; and the younger sister Barbara Hausmann, whom Terézia took care of.
All three, however, died of tuberculosis. Terézia 4 years later, after caring for and seeing her mother and sister die. What was very helpful, however, is that the deaths occurred at a time before the use of antibiotics, which means that the bacteria had not yet mutated from these drugs.
According to Exame Magazine, anthropologist Ildikó Szikossy, from the Natural History Museum of Hungary, considered the discovery as capable of bringing “new paths of medical research, which can be used by modern medicine”.
In an interview with Efe, the specialist also said that at that time there were several strains of the disease, which coexisted at the same time. By analyzing the DNA of the mummies, they found ramifications that originated in the Roman Empire. Only the mummy of Terézia Hausmann, for example, had two different types of tuberculosis bacteria.
The discovery was published in the scientific journal Nature Communications. “It was fascinating to see the similarities between the tuberculosis genome sequences that we recovered and the genome of a recent strain in Germany,” Mark Pallen, Professor of Microbial Genomics at Warwick Medical School, UK, commented in a statement.
Still according to Pallen, the study can help in tracking the evolution and spread of microbes. It also “revealed that some [bacterial] strains have been circulating in Europe for more than two centuries,” the expert pointed out.
For the convenience of the researchers, the corpses had been deposited in the Hungarian church between the years 1730 and 1838, so that allowed their conservation. It all happened because, in the 1780s, King José II prohibited burials in religious crypts, where the dead were placed one on top of the other, without separation, which was increasing contamination in the region.
However, residents of Vác did not respect the monarch’s ban. By cultural tradition, they went to the Hungarian church and placed several corpses of important people there. Until, in 1838, the place was finally closed.
The small cathedral then fell into oblivion. However, the temperature of the icy place, which varies between 8 and 11 degrees, and its high humidity of 90%, allowed for a natural mummification process.
It may also have helped the wood chips placed at the bottom of the coffins, which absorbed bodily fluids, and the natural antimicrobial agents in the pine resin in the coffins. The internal organs were thus left almost intact, allowing the screening of tuberculosis bacteria.
The mummies were transferred to the Natural History Museum of Hungary. According to data from the World Health Organization, the bacterial disease that annihilated them today still kills 4,500 people every day in the world, according to 2019 data. The answer to new treatments against tuberculosis may lie in paleomicrobiology, the fascinating study of how microbes acted in the past.