16th c. Greenland mummies had heart disease

Researchers have discovered evidence of heart disease in five mummies from 16th-century Greenland. An international team of anthropologists, medical doctors and technicians examined the mummies with a Computed Tomography scanner in the Brigham and Women’s Hospital (BWH) Shapiro Cardiovascular Center last year. They were looking for arterial plaque, the material that lines the arteries, hardening and narrowing them and creating blockages that can result in fatal heart attacks and strokes.

Atherosclerosis and the cardiovascular disease that result from it is the leading cause of death in the U.S. today. The research team wanted to find out if it was common 500 years ago in Greenland, part of a larger project investigating the heart health of mummified human remains from pre-industrial hunter-gatherer communities.

The mummies of four young adults and one child from the Inuit community in 16th century Greenland were subjected to high-resolution CT scans. The organs were not intact inside the bodies, but even without hearts to explore, researchers were able to detect hardened calcium, ie plaque, in the remains of blood vessels in the chest and neck.

From Egypt to Mongolia and now Greenland, mummies throughout the ages have shown evidence of atherosclerosis. The Greenland mummies were of particular interest due to their diet, which would have primarily consisted of fish and sea mammals.

While increased fish consumption is commonly touted as heart-healthy — which may make the findings of atherosclerosis seem surprising — [associate director of the Brigham’s Cardiovascular Imaging Program Dr. Ron] Blankstein emphasized that scientists still have much to learn about its relationship to cardiovascular health. For example, although it is known that consuming fish rich in omega-3 fats has benefits, some types of fish can also be high in cholesterol and, in the current era, contain toxins like mercury or polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) that may pose risk, he said.

Lifestyle factors, such as exposure to cooking smoke in their dwellings, may have also contributed to the mummified individuals developing cardiovascular disease during their lifetimes, Blankstein said. Given that and the small sample sizes of these mummy scans, he noted that the team’s findings shouldn’t be taken too much to heart, so to speak.

14 thoughts on “16th c. Greenland mummies had heart disease

  1. Interesting! As usual. One small corrective to offer: mummies can’t have heart disease. The people who later were mummified had the heart disease. Something like “Mummies Reveal Heart Disease in the 16th Century” might not be as succinct, but keeps my teeth from itching….

  2. When it says that the organs were not intact, does that mean they had degraded or had been removed as part of a mummification process?

  3. Friends,

    Some fish may be high in cholesterol, but many native peoples in the arctic eat large amounts of blubber from seals and other marine mammals. This gives them valuable energy, but is extremely high in cholesterol.

    Yours Aye,


  4. The cholesterol in the food you eat doesn’t matter a button. Unless you are a rabbit held prisoner in a lab and forced to eat an entirely unsuitable diet.

    The generation of women who avoided egg yolks because of the cholesterol they contained probably spoiled their complexions for no good cause.

  5. In ancient Siberia, the natural mummification was not only ‘natural’, i.e. conserving steps were taken care- and skillfully. Those mummies from Greenland, of course, are more than 1.5 millennia to young, but there are connections to the ‘ancient world’:

    Pliny the Elder, The Natural History, II, LXVI: “…The same Cornelius Nepos, when speaking of the northern circumnavigation, tells us that Q. Metellus Celer, the colleague of L. Afranius in the consulship [i.e. 691 ‘ab urbe condita’, the year 62 BC], then a proconsul in Gaul, had a present made to him by the king of the Suevi, of certain Indians, who sailing from India for the purpose of commerce, had been driven by tempests into Germany….”

    Pausanias, Description of Greece [2nd century AD], Paus. 1.23.5 (and 6): “…ἔφη δὲ Εὔφημος Κὰρ ἀνὴρ πλέων ἐς Ἰταλίαν ἁμαρτεῖν ὑπὸ ἀνέμων τοῦ πλοῦ καὶ ἐς τὴν ἔξω θάλασσαν, ἐς ἣν οὐκέτι πλέουσιν, ἐξενεχθῆναι. νήσους δὲ εἶναι μὲν ἔλεγεν ἐρήμους πολλάς, ἐν δὲ ἄλλαις οἰκεῖν ἄνδρας ἀγρίους· …..Euphemus the Carian said that on a voyage to Italy he was driven out of his course by winds and was carried into the outer sea, beyond the course of seamen. He affirmed that there were many uninhabited islands, while in others lived wild men…”

    Guanches, Greenlanders, Indians …or… the Irish?!? :ohnoes:

    “…the inhabitants were red haired, and had upon their flanks tails not much smaller than those of horses. As soon as they caught sight of their visitors, they ran down to the ship with out uttering a cry and assaulted the women in the ship. At last the sailors in fear cast a foreign woman on to the island. Here the Satyrids outraged not only in the usual way, but also in a most shocking manner.”

  6. Good point that I was already contemplating about myself, Dearie. My guess here is that the translation is a bit flimsy, and instead ‘With outcrying’ was meant.

    The text reads “..καταδραμόντας ἐπὶ τὴν ναῦν φωνὴν μὲν οὐδεμίαν ἱέναι, ταῖς δὲ γυναιξὶν ἐπιχειρεῖν ταῖς ἐν τῇ νηί·”, i.e. “they ran down to the ship making noise μὲν οὐδεμίαν ἱέναι, ἐπιχειρεῖν the women and the ones in the ship”, but my own Greek is a bit flimsy too.

    ἐπιχειρέω means ‘put one’s hand to’. Myself, I experienced something similar as a teenager, when in 1987 I dared to visit a local market on my own, in the jungles of eastern Borneo (dozens of crying natives running towards me, in order to get in touch).

  7. On a side note, kayaks do indeed seem to end up in Germany:

    Apparently, “the oldest existing kayaks are exhibited in the North America department of the State Museum of Ethnology in Munich, with the oldest dating from 1577”, and there is also one from 1605 in the lobby of the ‘Schiffergesellschaft‘ of Lübeck (with an inscription in what seems to be early modern ‘Low German’!), one that had been picked up in the North Atlantic, and presumably, that is what the inscription alludes to.


  8. Great link – The Lübeck inscription on the one in the ‘Schiffergesellschaft’ (now a pub), however, reads ‘De Jacht Uth Gronlandt iß min Name. Ick begere nicht mer thor Seewardt tho faren.’ (‘The Yacht from Greenland is my name. I desire no more to fare the Seas’) – followed by references to restorations that took place in 1607, 1668, 1821, 1911 and 1979 (after that, it was not written any longer on the piece itself).

  9. ..er ..A..a..Accusative, accusative!!! …Unfortunately, there was no picture with the complete Lübeck inscription, i.e. particularly not of the longer first bit , but I think I ..kind of.. figured out what ‘οὐδεμίαν ἱέναι’ stands for (it seems, indeed no Irish – And they made noise in Latin already, didn’t they?):

    καταδραμόντας ἐπὶ τὴν ναῦν φωνὴν μὲν οὐδεμίαν ἱέναι, ταῖς δὲ γυναιξὶν ἐπιχειρεῖν ταῖς ἐν τῇ νηί· Coming down to the ship not throwing a sound, they were touching the ship and the women with their hands.

  10. There were -among others- two graves of Qilakitsoq, containing 5+3 mummies, others were found in e.g. Uunartoq and Pisissarfik.

    The ones in Qilakitsoq were 6m, 4y, ca.25y, over 30y, 50y -and- 50y, 20y, over 50y, when interred (all women and the two children, the men probaly were having polar bear and whaling accidents, or were ‘picked up’).

    The “five mummies from 16th-century Greenland” here might be others, but I seem to have missed from where exactly.


  11. “The new found vvorlde, or Antarctike wherin is contained wo[n]derful and strange things, as well of humaine creatures, as beastes, fishes, foules, and serpents, trées, plants, mines of golde and siluer: garnished with many learned aucthorities, trauailed and written in the French tong, by that excellent learned man, master Andrevve Theuet. And now newly translated into Englishe, wherein is reformed the errours of the auncient cosmographers”

    (1557, Les singularitez de la France antarctique)

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