Incredible 375-Year-Old Mummy and his Ancient Parasite Discovered in South Korea

Research findings about the remains of a mummified man in South Korea from the 17th century unearthed in recent years has attracted great interest in the scientific community. Scholarship on the subject is undergoing a fascinating period of expansion in South Korea. This is in part due to modern construction projects which are leading to more and more unearthed treasures.
Mario L. Major
CT Scan of MummyJournal of Parasitology

Nearly three years ago, one group of South Korean researchers discovered a mummy that had been unintentionally mummified. Now, that same team is detailing the findings of their 'happy accident,' and it's helping researchers around the world better understand how the human body functions. 

A research team based at Seoul National University’s College of Medicine recently published its findings gathered from analyzing the remains of a 375-year-old mummified man in South Korea in the Journal of Parasitology. The man had been discovered in a Joseon tomb in the southeastern county of Cheongdo in South Korea which dates back to the 17th century.

CT scans of the Cheongdo mummy revealed a mass of eggs in the liver which most likely contained the Paragonimus westermani parasite, contracted from consuming raw fish or crabs which contain the parasite. It is treatable today, of course, but we can only imagine the pain and anguish this man must have suffered, as the symptoms are quite severe.

Incredible 375-Year-Old Mummy and his Ancient Parasite Discovered in South Korea
Source: Journal of Parasitology

The new discovery is another piece to the puzzle, answering many questions in the growing field of research and scholarship surrounding the Joseon Dynasty, whose tombs were constructed over their more than five-century rule in South Korea from 1392 to 1910. The dynasty boasts an impressive 40 tombs which cover 18 locations.

Unintentional Mummification?

The most fascinating aspect of the remains found in South Korea is that unlike in Egypt, preservation of the bodies was unintentional, merely a product of the burial practices used at the time. Of course, there was a philosophy behind the practices, but mummification in no way figured into their analysis. Scientists began to discover mummified remains in South Korea only about 10-15 years ago, and when looking at their decomposition rates and preservation compared to their Egyptian counterparts, the differences are quite surprising.

“The people believed the body should dissolve in a natural manner, without external factors such as worms,” explains expert Hebrew University Professor Mark Spigelman, who does research to make important links between ancient disease and modern day epidemiology. “This is why they developed a special burial custom. The unusual Korean burial practice actually led to much better preserved DNA than the artificial mummification practiced in ancient Egypt.”

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“A mummy in Egypt is always very, very dry. It feels like paper, [w]hereas a Korean mummy feels much softer and the tissues are more pliable.”

Equally unintentional in South Korea is the fact that ancient burial space is being disturbed, and later exposed, in the name of modern construction. Discoveries of a similar nature have been made in Istanbul, Turkey in the past 10 years as well: for instance, a sarcophagus which could very well date back to the Byzantine Era, unearthed by accident during routine road work.

Incredible 375-Year-Old Mummy and his Ancient Parasite Discovered in South Korea
Source: Archaeology News Network

So, when critics of modern construction raise objections, archaeologists may be tempted to mention these happy accidents that lead to unplanned but incredible breakthroughs.

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