Archaeology uncovers infectious disease spread 4000 years ago


Share post:

New bioarchaeology research from a University of Otago PhD candidate has shown how infectious diseases may have spread 4000 years ago, while highlighting the dangers of letting such diseases run rife.

Archaeology uncovers infectious disease spread 4000 years ago
Credit: University of Otago

Yaws — from the same bacteria species responsible for syphilis (Treponema pallidum) — is a childhood disease causing highly infectious skin lesions. It is spread via touch from person to person and, in advanced cases, can leave sufferers with severe bone disfigurement. While it is easily curable in its early stages, the bone disfigurements are irreversible.

The disease has been eradicated from much of the world but is still prevalent in the Western Pacific, affecting some 30,000 people. A previous global attempt to eradicate this tropical disease failed at the last hurdle in the 1950’s and a new attempt was curtailed by the COVID-19 outbreak, University of Otago Department of Anatomy PhD candidate Melandri Vlok says.

Ms Vlok’s PhD research uses archaeology to shed light on the spread of diseases when different human populations interact for the first time. Her specific interest is in what she calls the “friction zone,” where ancient agricultural people met hunter gatherer people.

In 2018 she travelled to Vietnam to study skeletal remains from the Man Bac archaeological site. From the Ninh Binh Province in the north of the country, Man Bac was excavated in 2005 and 2007 and has delivered a treasure trove of information for archaeologists thanks to its role during the transition away from foraging to farming in Mainland Southeast Asia.

Now housed in Hanoi’s Institute of Archaeology those remains are well-studied but had not been analysed for evidence of yaws, Ms Vlok says.

Her supervisor at Otago, renowned bioarchaeologist Professor Hallie Buckley, had seen what she thought might be yaws on a photograph of Man Bac remains. Professor Buckley travelled with Ms Vlok and together with a passionate team of experts from Vietnam they confirmed their suspicions, Ms Vlok says. Later, Ms Vlok found a second example of the disease.

This was significant, as the Man Bac site dates back 4000 years. Till now, there was no strong evidence for yaws in prehistoric Asia.

Ms Vlok’s research suggests yaws was introduced to hunter-gathers in present-day Vietnam by an agricultural population moving south from modern-day China. These hunter-gathers descended from the first people out of Africa and into Asia who also eventually inhabited New Guinea, the Solomon Islands and Australia.

The farmers had been in China for at least 9000 years but it wasn’t until around 4000 years ago farming was introduced to Southeast Asia. It is possible this movement of people brought diseases, including yaws, at the same time.

Ms Vlok says the length of time the disease has existed in the region is relevant when addressing how hard it has been to eradicate.

“This matters, because knowing more about this disease and its evolution, it changes how we understand the relationship people have with it. It helps us understand why it’s so difficult to eradicate. If it’s been with us thousands of years it has probably developed to fit very well with humans.”

This year’s COVID-19 pandemic has focused people’s attention on infectious diseases, and there are lessons to be learned from the past, Ms Vlok says.

“Archaeology like this is the only way to document how long a disease has been with us and been adapting to us. We understand with COVID-19 today how fantastic that disease is at adapting to humans. And Treponema has been with us for so much longer.

“So, this shows us what happens when we don’t take action with these diseases. It’s a lesson of what infectious diseases can do to a population if you let them spread widely. It highlights the need to intervene, because sometimes these diseases are so good at adapting to us, at spreading between us.”

Source: University of Otago [September 21, 2020]




Related articles

Archaeological finds from Crossrail digs on show in London

A skull from Roman London and finds from a suspected Black Death burial ground discovered during Crossrail project...

Memorial tomb of Greek poet Aratos unearthed in southern Turkey

Ongoing excavations in the ancient city of Soli Pompeipolis in the Mezitli district of southern Mersin (Greek Myrsini)...

La Malia site, a window onto the Upper Palaeolithic in the Iberian Peninsula interior

The 2020 Excavation Campaign at the Tamajon karst in Guadalajara (Spain) and, specifically, at the rockshelter known as...

Ancient Arab shipwreck yields secrets of Ninth century trade

For more than a decade, archaeologists and historians have been studying the contents of a ninth-century Arab...

Piecing together fragments of Hadrian’s Temple in ancient Kyzikos

Pieces of numerous stone objects have been found at the temple of Hadrian located in the ancient city...

‘Dodonaios: The Oracle of Zeus and Magna Graecia’ at the National Archaeological Museum of Reggio Calabria

From March 8, 2019 and for three months, the exhibition halls of the Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Reggio...

‘Devotion and Decadence’ at the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World, NY

The NYU Institute for the Study of the Ancient World (ISAW) presents Devotion and Decadence: The Berthouville Treasure...

Gallo-Roman wine press found in Touraine

What is thought to be a Gallo-Roman wine press dating to the second century AD has been discovered...