The mummified remains of a man who died in 1642 had a liver infection caught by eating raw shellfish, perhaps in the hope of curing measles
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It might have been what the doctor ordered, but it didn’t do the patient much good. A 375-year-old mummified man discovered in South Korea had a parasitic liver infection caught by eating raw shellfish, which the man might have done on medical advice.
Jing Lee died in 1642 at the age of 63 and was buried in what is now Cheongdo. His body was remarkably well preserved when archaeologists unearthed it in 2014.
With permission from Jing Lee’s descendants, a team led by Min Seo at Dankook University College of Medicine, South Korea, CT-scanned the mummy. This revealed a strange lump on the man’s liver.
The team removed the lump and found it contained golden-brown eggs, each roughly 85 micrometres long. They identified them as belonging to a parasitic fluke, Paragonimus westermani. That means Jing Lee was suffering from hepatic paragonimiasis when he died. He is the oldest known case, say Seo and her colleagues.
P. westermani is carried by freshwater crustaceans. Jing Lee probably picked it up by eating raw crabs or crayfish, both of which were consumed by the Joseon culture he was a member of. At the time, raw crayfish juice was considered an effective treatment for measles.
Jing Lee might have experienced symptoms such as pain or fever, says Seo. “However, I cannot say that this pathological condition could be the cause of death.”
Often paragonimiasis has no symptoms at all, says James Diaz at the Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center, New Orleans. It is still relatively common today – mainly in South-East Asia and parts of Central and South America, where people often eat raw or undercooked crustaceans.
“The parasite will penetrate through the lining of the intestine and then it’s free to move around the peritoneal cavity,” says Diaz. It typically heads for the lungs, although it can end up in the liver, as in the case of Jing Lee. It then forms an egg-filled cyst.
One clear symptom arises when a cyst lodged in a lung bursts, allowing the eggs to find their way into the airways. “A patient will spit up bloody sputum,” says Diaz. “That’s what brings them into the doctor’s office.”
Karl Reinhard at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln says the study is the latest in a decade-long series of investigations into the parasites carried by Korea’s ancient mummies. It turns out parasitic infections were a common feature of life: all 18 mummies examined so far have carried at least one parasite.
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