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Skeleton 'hints at leprosy history'

Published 13/05/2015

Part of a 1,500-year-old male skeleton used by researchers looking at the origins of leprosy in Britain (University of Southampton/PA Wire)
Part of a 1,500-year-old male skeleton used by researchers looking at the origins of leprosy in Britain (University of Southampton/PA Wire)

Leprosy may have spread to Britain from Scandinavia, according to a study of a 1,500-year-old skeleton.

Archaeologists from the University of Southampton have been involved in examining the male skeleton which was excavated at Great Chesterford in Essex during the 1950s.

The bones of the man, probably in his 20s, show changes consistent with leprosy, such as narrowing of the toe bones and damage to the joints, suggesting a very early British case.

Modern scientific techniques applied by the researchers for the study published in PLOS ONE have now confirmed the man did suffer from the disease and that he may have come from southern Scandinavia.

Dr Sonia Zakrzewski, of the University of Southampton, said DNA testing was carried out to get a clear diagnosis.

She said: "Not all cases of leprosy can be identified by changes to the skeleton.

"Some may leave no trace on the bones, others will affect bones in a similar way to other diseases.

"In these cases the only way to be sure is to use DNA fingerprinting, or other chemical markers characteristic of the leprosy bacillus."

The results showed the leprosy strain belonged to a lineage (3I) which has previously been found in burials from medieval Scandinavia and southern Britain, but in this case it originates from a much earlier period, dating from the 5th or 6th centuries AD.

Isotopes from the man's teeth showed he probably did not come from Britain, but more likely grew up elsewhere in northern Europe, perhaps southern Scandinavia.

This matched the results of the DNA, and raises the possibility that he brought a Scandinavian strain of the leprosy bacterium with him when he migrated to Britain.

Project leader Dr Sarah Inskip, of the University of Leiden in the Netherlands, said: "The radiocarbon date confirms this is one of the earliest cases in the UK to have been successfully studied with modern biomolecular methods.

"This is exciting both for archaeologists and for microbiologists. It helps us understand the spread of disease in the past, and also the evolution of different strains of disease, which might help us fight them in the future."

Although leprosy is nowadays a tropical disease, in the past it occurred in Europe with human migrations probably helping to spread it with cases dating back to the 7th century AD.

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