We Knew That Mexico's Mummies Were Creepy, But Now We Know That They're Also Biohazard Risks

  • A museum in Guanajuato, Mexico, houses dozens of mummies. Researchers are concerned about potential biohazards from the toxins they emit.

  • It wouldn’t be the first time mummy fungus killed someone.

Mummies from Guanajuato, Mexico
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Mummies can be creepy, but they’re also one of the most fascinating attractions in museums. However, at the Mummy Museum in Guanajuato, Mexico, some researchers warn of the danger behind mummies: They won’t come back to life, of course, but there is life growing inside of them.

Specifically, we're talking about fungi. And it wouldn’t be the first time a mummy ended a human’s life.

The Last of Us. Fungi aren’t as harmless as we think. One of the best video game adaptations out there the HBO series The Last of Us. In this story, we learn about a fungus that can infect humans and control them so that it can reproduce itself. It’s fiction, but we are talking about the ophiocordyceps unilateralis, a parasitic fungus that infects ants, grows until it reaches their brains, and “leads” them to a plant. There, the ant sticks its mandibles in the plant and dies so the fungus can consume the insect, spread through the plant, and reproduce using spores.

The Casimir IV incident. Speaking of mummies and fungi, it's important mention the case of Casimir IV, the Grand Duke of Lithuania and King of Poland. He died in 1492 and is buried at the Krakow Cathedral in an enormous red marble tomb. Nearly 500 years later, 12 experts opened the grave. Out of those, 10 died prematurely. The cause of death was the aflatoxins present in the tomb, which affect the liver and are highly carcinogenic. What created these toxins? The fungi.

The mummies of Guanajuato. Death is a business in many parts of the world. In Mexico, as in other countries, you have pay burial fees in cemeteries. When people stop paying those fees for the graves of their loved ones, the local administration considers the crypt abandoned, so they exhume the mortal remains and make room for new deceased. That’s where this story begins. Exhumations in Guanajuato began in 1865, with officials digging up roughly 111 bodies over a century. Some of them are in the Mummy Museum of Guanajuato.

These mummies have a sinister look due to their poses and descriptions. One of them is a fetus. But their excellent state of preservation is also disturbing—even more so when you consider that they were mummified without any such intention at the time of burial. Experts believe that the mummies' excellent state of conservation is due to the soil’s composition in the area, not embalming techniques. And if death is a business, the mummies are a bigger one. They've become a famous exposition in Guanajato and have even appeared in films. Even the U.S. temporarily exhibited 36 of these mummies between 2009 and 2013.

A fetus mummy in Guanajuato, Mexico

Concerned scientists. Researchers from the Mexican National Institute of Anthropology and History warned about the health risk that the mummies may pose, as some could be developing fungus. In a report, experts stated that “according to some of the published photographs, at least one of the exposed bodies inspected by the Institute in November 2021 shows signs of proliferation of possible fungal colonies.”

During a tourism fair in Mexico City, the organizers displayed some of these mummies without consulting the institute. In light of this situation, researchers commented that it was “worrying that the mummies continue in exhibitions without protecting the public from biological risks. This should be carefully studied to see if they pose a risk to cultural heritage as well as to those who handle and view them.”

Fairground mummies. But this concern goes beyond the fact that fungi can be deadly. Besides being a potential health issue, there's also a social issue. Dying is sad, of course, but in Mexico, people honor the dead, especially on the Day of the Dead, when they bring everything from food to mariachis to cemeteries. 

In the case of the Guanajuato mummies, however, things are a bit murkier. Gerald Conlogue, a professor of diagnostic imaging at Quinnipiac University, says that after graveyard workers discovered some of the mummies, “to get people interested in seeing them, cemetery workers started telling stories about hangings, outlaws, and witches.” In, some of the museum’s rooms feature names such as “The Witch" and “Little Angels. There's also one called “Dennis the Menace.”

Given to the relaxation of jaw muscles over time, some mummies appear to be screaming. Over time, visitors began stealing the mummies' identification, which led to the rise of nicknames like "The Witch," a mummy in a strange posture not because she was a witch, but because she lived with scoliosis. In 2020, 12 of the mummies went on tour, which has led some to demand they be treated like human bodies. Conlogue believes that the mummies “shouldn't be a fairground spectacle” and that experts must examine the bodies to see if they have relatives who might want to rebury them.

Images | ReyungCho, ReyungCho, Thelmadatter

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