“Investigation of the recent microbial degradation of the skin of the Chinchorro mummies of Ancient Chile” by DeAraujo et al (2016)

DeAraujo, A.; Vasanthakumar, A.; Sepulveda, M.; Standen, V.; Arriaza, B.; Mitchell, R., “Investigation of the recent microbial degradation of the skin of the Chinchorro mummies of Ancient Chile”,  Journal of Cultural Heritage 22 (2016) 999–1005.
Doi:10.1016/j.culher.2015.11.004  (ScienceDirect, restricted access)

Biodeterioration of cultural heritage artifacts due to microbial activity presents a significant challenge to conservators and museums around the World. A collection of Chinchorro mummies recovered from the Atacama Desert (the oldest artificial mummies ever found, dating back to 5050 B.C.E.) has been stored in the Universidad de Tarapacá, northern Chile. Over the past ten years, accelerated deterioration of some mummies has been documented. Blackening and exudation of some areas of their remaining skin is causing disfigurement of the mummies and poses a threat to the collection, also for mummies in situ exposed to the natural environment. This study was designed to provide a broad analysis of the skin microbiota of Chinchorro mummies and, investigate the relationship between the presence of microbes and the recent discoloration and biodegradation of the Chinchorro mummies’ skin. Microorganisms isolated from degraded Chinchorro mummy skin samples were similar, based on ribosomal RNA analysis, to bacteria found in the human skin microbiome (predominantly, Bacillus, Staphylococcus, and Methylococcus spp.) and commonly occurring fungi (predominantly, Penicillium and Aspergillus spp.). Some of these microorganisms were able to utilize collagen and/or keratin as the sole carbon source in vitro. We determined the activity of the collagenase/gelatinase enzymes produced by these microorganisms when grown on pig skin, which was used as a surrogate for human skin. The concentration of hydroxyproline, a measure of collagenous protein degradation by the microorganisms, increased with increasing relative humidity. We demonstrated that keratinolytic and collagenolytic opportunistic microorganisms were likely responsible for the recent degradation phenomenon.