The disease of leprosy has been eating away at humankind for the past 4,000 years, according to a newly discovered skeleton that showed signs of the ailment. Researchers say that the ancient leper provides clues to how the disease spread through the human population. The skeleton was found at the site of Balathal, near Udaipur in northwestern India. Historians have long considered the Indian subcontinent to be the source of the leprosy that was first reported in Europe in the fourth century B.C., shortly after the armies of Alexander the Great returned from India [The New York Times].
The skeleton was buried, which is uncommon in the Hindu tradition unless the person is highly respected or unfit to be cremated, a category that included outcasts, pregnant women, children under 5, victims of magic or curses, and lepers. The leper’s skeleton was interred within a large stone enclosure that had been filled with vitrified ash from burned cow dung, the most sacred and purifying of substances in Vedic tradition [LiveScience]. A close examination of the skull showed eroded pits typical of advanced leprosy, as well as tooth loss and root exposure.
Experts on leprosy have debated whether the disease was disseminated when humans originally left Africa and began to spread out over the globe, or whether it began to circulate and spread from India in a more recent age. The new study, published in the journal PLoS ONE, supports the idea that the disease didn’t really catch hold until humans began clustering together in cities, and engaging in long-distance trade. While leprosy is infectious, it is relatively hard to catch, requiring prolonged association with someone who has the disease [AP]. To further probe the disease’s origins, lead researcher Gwen Robbins said she planned to extract ancient bacterial DNA from the Indian skeleton and hoped it might resolve how the disease originated [The New York Times].
Leprosy is closely tied to human history because it has only one other animal host, the armadillo…. It is a bacterial disease affecting the skin and nerves, especially of the hands and feet [AP]. It produces unsightly skin lesions and can deform hands and feet (it doesn’t make limbs to fall off, despite popular belief), and lepers have historically been ostracized in many cultures. Today, however, the bacterial infection is easy to treat.
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Image: PLoS ONE / Gwen Robbins, et al.