Mummy of paraplegic child shows how Peru’s Nasca culture treated disability

The builders of the Nasca Lines cared for their sick, even when times got tough.

Most Peruvian mummies come bundled in cloth, with their legs folded up to their chests and their arms around their knees. But the young boy we now know only as the Nasca Boy was buried in a position he probably occupied in life: on a contoured, cushioned adobe stool, with his lower legs tucked beneath his seat. It’s the only burial of its kind that archaeologists have ever seen, and it immediately suggests two very important things about this child: he lived with a disability that would have required additional care and resources, and he was well cared for and valued by the people around him, even during a period of their history when food was scarce and life was uncertain.

That’s the conclusion of a new study, which revisits the original 1973 research on the mummified remains of the young boy, who died around 700 CE. The original archaeologists, led by the late Marvin Allison, focused on identifying evidence of tuberculosis in the boy’s remains; they provided the first evidence that the disease had stalked South American populations long before Europeans arrived.

Archaeologist Lorna Tilley and her colleagues have taken a second look at that study in an effort to reconstruct details of the child’s experience with his illness and disability, the kind of care he probably received, and what that reveals about the culture in which he lived. “I rely on taking the information available from the work of other archaeologists and synthesizing it, hoping that I’ve understood their research results and providing copious references so that readers can go to the sources themselves,” Tilley told Ars Technica.

An autopsy in the early 1970s found evidence of tuberculosis infection in the Nasca Boy’s spine, a condition called Pott’s Disease. Allison and his colleagues suggested that the child’s ordeal began as a mild respiratory infection when the boy was a year or two old. Tuberculosis bacteria in his bloodstream must have spread to his spine, where it eventually left a 5cm-wide abscess in his lower spine, having eaten away at several vertebrae and the discs between them.

Allison and his colleagues also found lesions (called tubercles) and Mycobacterium tuberculosisbacteria in the boy’s lungs, heart, liver, and right kidney. This widespread infection, called miliary tuberculosis, may have spread through his bloodstream from the abscess in his spine, and it probably killed him within weeks.

The Nasca Boy probably lived with Pott’s disease for a few years before losing mobility in his legs, and it would have taken a heavy toll on his early childhood, forcing him to live with back and chest pain, fevers, weight loss, and fatigue. It’s likely that he would never have been able to keep up with his peers, either at play or in the work often expected of children in agricultural communities. Tilley and her colleagues compared the Nasca Boy’s case to studies of modern children facing chronic disease, and they speculate that he may also have dealt with depression, anxiety, and grief.

A child with such an illness would have needed additional care and support from his family members—sick children need to be comforted when they’re in pain, cooled when they’re feverish, and probably coaxed to eat.

When Pott’s disease left him immobilized, the Nasca Boy would have required an even higher level of care: help with bathing and personal hygiene, frequent massages and repositioning to help with circulation, and much closer supervision to make sure he was safe, hydrated, and getting enough nutrition. “Without massaging, repositioning, constant hygiene monitoring and maintenance, pressure sores are inevitable when a subject is immobilized, and if left untreated rapidly become infected,” Tilley told Ars Technica. “Similarly, when someone is effectively immobilized, their circulatory and respiratory (as well as other!) systems are very rapidly compromised.”

The fact that the Nasca Boy survived eight to ten years with such a serious illness is proof that he received the care he needed, and it seems he was cared for well; his skin, preserved by natural mummification for nearly 1,300 years, shows no sign of bedsores, which means he likely benefited from good hygiene and frequent position changes. And the stool itself tells a story.

“The stool speaks of an understanding and acceptance of the Nasca Boy’s needs and of the readiness to work around them,” wrote Tilley and her colleagues.

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