By many accounts, 1991 was a good year for science. First, the WorldWideWeb was launched (and 22 years later, here we are!) Second, a mummy was found frozen in the mountains of Italy. His (modern) name is Otzi, and he is 5,300 years old.
According to Wikipedia, Otzi is the oldest human preserved naturally (rather than purposefully embalmed). Scientists have learned a lot from him, but perhaps the most interesting finding is that Otzi was believed to have been taking medicine to treat his ails.
In 1998 scientists found evidence of a parasite infection in the digestive tract of Otzi's remains. The parasites may have caused stomach pain and anemia (iron deficiency in the blood). A more recent analysis (2012) of DNA from the remains revealed that Otzi was also infected with the bacteria that causes Lyme disease. Some scholars think that the Lyme infection may have caused him back and leg pain, and that the tattoos he wore over those areas may have been therapeutic.
Fungus of the type found with Otzi's remains
Also found with the preserved remains were two fungi (mushrooms) threaded with a leather cord, rather like a keychain. Upon closer inspection, scientists discovered that the fungi were Piptoporus betulinus which causes severe diarrhea if eaten, and may have helped treat the parasitic infection. These mushrooms also have antibiotic, antiviral, and antitumor properties, making them potentially very useful to a man who lived 53 centuries before modern medicine.
What are we to make of these findings? It seems that even in 3,300 BCE people understood that their ailments were caused by something that could be treated. Not only that, but modern science tells us that those treatments may have actually been quite effective. Though medicine has progressed a lot in the last five thousand years, it's humbling to think that our ancestors were off to a good start.
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