Could the mummies from Guanajuato pose a health risk to humans?

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There’s a group of mummies in Mexico you may not want to go see. Even though they remain on display in Mexico City—and have routinely traveled the country as part of exhibits—not everyone in the country deems them safe.

Unlike in the movies, there’s no threat of these mummies coming back to life. Instead, the unexpected life-causing problems here are of the fungal variety.

Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History says the appearance of fungal growth on the traveling display is causing concern about the way the mummies are handled and presented to the public. Known as The Mummies of Guanjuato, the exhibit made an appearance in the United States in 2009. But it was a recent exhibit in Mexico City, showing off six mummies in glass cases, that has led the institute to alert the public— especially considering that they don’t know how airtight those glass display cases really are.

“It is even more worrisome that they are still being exhibited without the safeguards for the public against biohazards,” the institute said in a statement, according to the Associated Press. “From some of the published photos, at least one of the corpses on display, which was inspected by the institute in November 2021, shows signs of a proliferation of possible fungus colonies.”

Deadly fungal infections from mummies certainly aren’t common occurrences, but they also aren’t unheard of. IFL Science reports that 10 of the 12 scientists present at the 1970 opening of King Casimir IV’s tomb in Poland died within weeks of the event, likely from fungi. And this isn’t the only example on record.

The current Mexican mummy spectacle was never intended as an example in mummification. Experts believe the 19th or 20th-century corpses were unintentionally mummified—a possible byproduct of the mineral-rich environment, an air-tight dry underground burial vault, or some other environmental cause. Some of the mummies still have hair, skin, and even preserved clothing, but there’s an obvious lack of embalming or other common mummification products.

The mummies have been part of Mexican culture since the 1860s. When the families of the deceased couldn’t continue paying burial fees, the bodies were set to be disinterred. Workers who had been planning to remove dusty bones were instead met with fully intact bodies, which were put on display due to their preserved nature and the ability to attract paying customers to view them. According to National Geographic, early visitors traveled underground to view the mummies and, since 1969, they have been on display in a Guanajuato museum, Museo de las Momias.

In the early 1900s, the poses and marketing of the mummy exhibit took on a distinct horror element. Some of the bodies were positioned with arms folded across chests and jaws in an open position to create the appearance that mummies were screaming.

The display style of these mummies has long drawn social criticism. “These are just regular people who are repositories of information about the period they lived in,” Gerald Conlogue, diagnostic imaging professor emeritus with Quinnipiac University, tells National Geographic. “They walked these streets; they went to the old market. They shouldn’t be a freak show.” In February 2022, an effort was launched to begin identifying the mummies.

But now the social criticisms are joined by health concerns. “This should all be carefully studied to see if these are signs of a risk for the cultural legacy,” the institute’s statement says, “as well as for those who handle them and come to see them.”

Sources: AP / momiasdeguanajuato.gob.mx/

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