Found: The Earliest Known Leprosy Patient

By Eliza Strickland | May 27, 2009 10:37 am

leprosy skullThe 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.

Related Content:
80beats: Humans Have Hosted Tuberculosis Bacteria for at Least 9,000 Years
DISCOVER: Vital Signs chronicles a rare, tough case of leprosy in Florida
DISCOVER: Where Leprosy Lurks examines the disease in armadillos

Image: PLoS ONE / Gwen Robbins, et al.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine, Human Origins
  • Ford

    “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”

    “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.”

    From what I’ve read modern humans left Africa closer to 100 000 years ago.
    If the oldest leprosy evidence is 4000 years old then how come people still think it might originate from when we left Africa?

  • http://clubneko.net Nick

    Re: Ford

    A) Leprosy didn’t just spring into being one day – that’s creationism. It evolved, so it’s safe to say it’s been around an awful long time.

    B) Modern humans didn’t exist until 50,000 years ago.

  • Ford

    Re: Nick

    A) You’re the one bringing up creationism, not me.

    B) Wrong. Modern humans have been around for about 200 000 years.

    C) You’re making a fool of youself so stop trying to answer things you know nothing about.

  • mel

    Boys, Boys.

  • John

    Hmmm..200,000 years. I have yet to see the evidence. If I say humans appeared less than 9000 years ago, based on the freedom of thought I have as much as your freedom to believe in 200,000 years, and if I say leprosy developed thereafter, why do I feel as if I am about to be thumped by the know-alls, experts and gurus. And if I say the Bible documents leprosy more than 2000 BC which source of information is priceless, yet we choose to dump the whole volume because it is ‘religious’. How clever!

  • http://mozillafirefox Julia

    Question: Years ago I heard a local MD, who’s personal interest was ancient disease, say that Biblical leprosy did not look like modern leprosy because no Biblical skeletons had been dis-interred with the same digit loss as ‘modern’ skeletons show.
    As this is a bacterial disease, is it possible that the changes over time are simply those of mutation?
    Is it also possible that, with sufficient nutrition in the Middle Ages, the disease could be overcome, as with any modern, bacterial ‘cold’?

  • Kayleigh Nadin

    Homo sapiens have been around since about 250,000 years ago! And there were other homo genuses before that. The first dating all the way back to Homo Habilis which was approximately over 2 million years ago! And there is so much evidence. And really? 9,000 years? The Egyptians were around over 5000 years ago!

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