A 2,500-year-old mummy was extracted from the Altai Mountains in Russia in 1993. As it had been encased in permafrost and protected from the elements, the body was in exceptional condition. The mummy was identified as a female who died in her early 20s. Her body was decorated in tattoos that were still visible on her well-preserved skin and she was buried with meat, ornate clothing, and accessories. These clues indicate that she was a woman of importance during her life, leading to her nickname as the “Altai Princess.” She was identified as belonging to the Pazyryk culture.
Over 20 years after her discovery, researchers have found that the ice princess was plagued with metastatic breast cancer and may have used cannabis to self-medicate as a way to relieve the painful symptoms of her condition. The findings were published in the journal Science First Hand.
Recent MRI scans of the Altai Princess revealed that she had a host of maladies throughout her life. She showed signs of osteomyelitis, a bone infection, from her younger years. Increased bone density is an indicator of this illness. Nearer to the time of her death, her bones also showed signs of damage that hint that she fell from a height, such as falling off of a horse. As the Pazyryk people routinely rode horseback, this wasn’t altogether unexpected. However, there was one big surprise: the Altai Princess also had breast cancer which had spread throughout her body.
“During the imaging of mammary glands, we paid attention to their asymmetric structure and the varying asymmetry of the MR signal,” researcher Andrey Letyagin told the Siberian Times. “We are dealing with a primary tumor in the right breast and right axial lymph nodes with metastases.”
Letyagin went on to describe the Altai Princess as emaciated at the time of her death. If she hadn’t been sick, he claims, her societal stature would have ensured that she had adequate food. Her weakened state likely contributed to her falling off of her horse and sustaining those injuries. At her death, her breast cancer had reached Stage 4. The fall, though it fractured her skull and dislocated her right shoulder and hip, did not kill her. The researchers were able to derive that she died 3-5 months later.
The Altai Princess was found buried with cannabis, which she may have used to deal with her immeasurable pain. There is other archeological evidence that the Pazyryk people used cannabis, wine, and opium for analgesic purposes.
“Probably for this sick woman, sniffing cannabis was a forced necessity,” Natalya Polosmak told the Siberian Times. Polosmak led the team of researchers that found the mummy in 1993. “And she was often in altered state of mind. We can suggest that through her could speak the ancestral spirits and gods. Her ecstatic visions in all likelihood allowed her to be considered as some chosen being, necessary and crucial for the benefit of society. She can be seen as the darling of spirits and cherished until her last breath.”
Certain features of the mummy’s burial indicate that the Pazyryk went above and beyond normal burial traditions, even among high-ranking members. This has led the researchers to believe that the Altai Princess may not have been a princess at all. In fact, the evidence suggests that she could have been a shaman; likely the most exalted member of her tribe. The researchers note that as a shaman, she would have routinely used cannabis, wine, and opium to help her communicate with spirits. Additionally, many shamans were given their titles after fighting serious illness, which might have been a side-effect of using the drugs used for analgesic purposes.