A microscopic study of Peruvian funeral material

George Robert Talbott (†)

In 1987 the San Diego Museum of Man received a pair of mummified right hands and forearms from two young children which had been excavated at La Capilla, Chillon Valley, Peru. Whether or not these children were related to one another will have to wait on further DNA analysis.

What was most intellectually enticing about these dour specimens was that each child held a hollow funerary cane in their respective mummified hands, and the canes themselves were stoppered with raw cotton, not unlike what has been found with ancient Egyptian funerary practices. And, what was found inside these tubes was a white powdery substance that at first was suspected of being an hallucinogenic drug, but forensic electron microscopy and x-ray diffraction at Scripps Institution of Oceanography later identified the white substance as gypsum, an inorganic which in its dehydrated state - plaster of Paris - acts as a desiccant.

There the matter might have stood, leaving the mystery as to both why these canes were filled with gypsum and why the children held them in their right hands. A sample of the powder from one of the canes was sent in mid-1993 to medical technologist George R. Talbott, a research associate at the Museum, for his specialized analysis. He didn't know at the time, but there were uncharacterized dark specs in the gypsum.

Talbott has a Zeiss universal light microscope at his disposal, supporting the brightfield, darkfield, phase contrast and polarization applications with trinocular optics for preparing photographs of any specimen of particular interest, and making his expertise invaluable for such an investigation. This level of sophistication in microscopy was desirable since, if the unidentified darker material was organic in origin, any mummified fragments would not be amenable to the usual histological techniques of fixing, blocking, sectioning, staining and mounting, as could be used with fresh samples of cellular matter. So the more advanced technique of "light-staining" was applied, supported by phase contrast, darkfield, and polarization.

Indeed, when Talbott first observed a small sample of gypsum under the Zeiss instrument at 400 power amplification, he recognized one of the dark spots as a fragment of what appeared to be triturated heart tissue. Other samples were then found to contain myocardial cells with pseudomorphs of mitochondria, muscle fiber, intercalated discs, both epicardial and pericardial wall material, all specifically indicative of heart tissue.

Being cognizant of similar Egyptian funerary practices, but not content with this array of inferences, Talbott sent several photomicrographs to an associate, Allen Steinmetz, a microbiologist at UC Berkeley, who confirmed Talbott's findings. The formal report was then filed with the Museum in early 1994. Yet, such a curious finding required additional confirmation, which the Museum apparently secured from pathologist Art Aufderheide, of the University of Minnesota. And, Talbott's report was subsequently featured in a paper presented by Rose Tyson, the Museum's curator in physical anthropology, at the annual meeting of Paleopathology Association in Denver in the Spring of 1994.

Why was this finding of mummified heart tissue fragments in Peruvian funerary paraphernalia so curious?

Such practice in ancient Egyptian funerary ritual is not unknown. Sir Wallis Budge, the noted Egyptologist and Assyriologist, regarded that the Egyptians mummified the heart separately from other organs of the body in their rituals, but others more recently have dissented. Still others claim that such practice was performed in the late dynasties of Egypt.

Nonetheless, however late such practices were performed in ancient Egypt doesn't detract in the least from the fact of a parallel practice in Peruvian antiquity. The question naturally arises as to what, if any, influence Egypt might have had on the Chillon Valley in Peru.

Standard archaeological persuasion says that there was little or no contact between The Old World and the New World prior to the time of Columbus, and in any case it would have been by accident - storm-blown shipwreck - rather than by design. Succinctly put, anything before Columbus automatically becomes apocryphal. But anyone with a critical eye can wonder.

(Frederic Jueneman. 1996)