Siberian Mummy Yields 300-year-old Smallpox DNA

Five mummies in one grave. Benigini et al. NEJM, 2012. DOI: 10.1056/NEJMc1208124

It was the mass grave that got their attention. Four bodies crammed into one casket, with one child outside but with the casket. Multiple graves are not common in Yakutia, Siberia. Examination of the late 17th to early 18th century mummies indicates that burial came quickly after death. The casket contains one adult male over age 30, an adult female, an adult female under age 23,  a male child about 5 years old, and outside the casket a child about 4 years old.

The French and Russian team led by Philippe Biagini undertook pathological and genetic analysis of all five mummies. They were able to confirm that the older woman is the mother of  the young adult woman and the adult male. They took lung and tooth specimens from each mummy at the site (in situ). Finding iron inclusions in the lungs of the young female (mummy 2), suggested to the team that she suffered a pulmonary hemorrhage shortly before death. They don’t say how they jumped from there to screening for smallpox or what other pathogens were considered.  Oddly, they make no mention of any smallpox lesions on the mummy. (Without other bioarchaeological data, is it possible that this team only received the tooth and lung specimens, but not the remainder of the mummy?)

The DNA was divided among three labs. Three short sections of Variola  (smallpox) genome were amplified by at least two labs each. They failed to amplify long stretches of the virus, suggesting that there are no intact virons left in the mummy. Their phylogenetic analysis grouped this virus, PoxSib, with Variola but distinct from both clade 1 and clade 2. They suggest that PoxSib could be an ancestral strain to both clade 1 and clade 2 or a strain that has not been previously sampled. Biagini et al. suggest this virus may have come to Siberia with the Russian conquest in early 18th century, possibly connected with a documented outbreak in 1714. This grave comes from the same culture as previously analyzed graves that isolated the first ancient whooping cough.


Biagini, P., Thèves, C., Balaresque, P., Géraut, A., Cannet, C., Keyser, C., Nikolaeva, D., Gérard, P., Duchesne, S., Orlando, L., Willerslev, E., Alekseev, A., de Micco, P., Ludes, B., & Crubézy, E. (2012). Variola Virus in a 300-Year-Old Siberian Mummy New England Journal of Medicine, 367 (21), 2057-2059 DOI: 10.1056/NEJMc1208124 See supplemental appendix for most of the detail.


3 thoughts on “Siberian Mummy Yields 300-year-old Smallpox DNA

  1. I would fully agree that the presence of presumably iron pigments in the intestinal tract are consistent with death due to hemorrhagic smallpox. The typical patient with hemorrhagic smallpox became acutely ill had a very short course of disease with severe symptoms,profuse bleeding from all orifices, and death within days to a week. The skin remained soft to the touch; there were no pustules. Cases of hemorrhagic smallpox are portrayed in our book along with a detailed, clinico-pathological description. See Fenner, et al. Smallpox and Its Eradication (WHO, Geneva, 1988.


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