Ana Vicente and her team at the Oswaldo Cruz Institute in Rio de Janeiro began their quest for ancient pinworm RNA at San Pedro de Atacama, a pre-Incan village that was once part of an important trade route to the Pacific coast. Considered the driest place on earth, the region boasts 35 mm of rainfall in its wettest years and is considered a veritable time capsule for archaeologists, says paleoparasitologist Adauto Araujo, "There are so many bodies there, that archaeologists no longer excavate them."

In 1994, Araujo stopped in at San Pedro's Gustavo Paige Archaeological Museum to give long-dead mummies their first colonoscopies. Carefully, he inserted a slender pair of forceps through the anus and plucked dried bits of feces from the colon. In a few cases, Araujo entered the intestine from openings in the mummies' abdomens. A handful of specimens were collected the easy way - from ancient toilets....

Interested in reading more?

Magaizne Cover

Become a Member of

Receive full access to digital editions of The Scientist, as well as TS Digest, feature stories, more than 35 years of archives, and much more!