Researchers Find Evidence of Smallpox in the Viking Age

Related Articles

Related Articles

The fatal disease smallpox is older and more widespread than scientists so far have proved.

A new study by an international team of researchers from the University of Copenhagen and the University of Cambridge shows that the Vikings also suffered from smallpox.

Through the ages, the highly infectious disease smallpox has killed hundreds of millions of people. But it is unclear exactly when the disease emerged. There has been found evidence of smallpox from individuals from the 17th century while written records suggest the disease is much older.

 

Now a new study shows that the disease dates 1,000 years further back in time than previously shown. Researchers from the University of Copenhagen (UCPH) and the University of Cambridge have found proof that smallpox also existed in the Viking Age.

“We have found the oldest evidence of smallpox. Moreover, it seems to have been surprisingly common as early as in the Viking Age,” says Associate Professor Martin Sikora, Globe Institute, UCPH, and the University of Cambridge. He continues:

“Smallpox is the infection in the world that has killed most people. For that reason alone, it is very important and interesting to know how the disease developed. It gives us a unique opportunity to understand the viruses’ evolution: How did it change and become the pathogen that we know of today.”

Widespread in Northern Europe

The researchers have studied and analysed the DNA of 13 individuals from Northern Europe infected with smallpox. The samples are 1,000 years older than the previous oldest sample known to have been infected based on ancient DNA, and they thus push the timeline for smallpox further back in time.

The study also shows the disease has been more widespread than previously assumed. The general idea used to be that smallpox was not endemic to Northern Europe during that time period.

“We show that not only was it endemic in Europe, but it was actually quite widespread in Northern Europe already at the year 600. That means that the disease was almost certainly far more established at a much earlier age than previously thought,” says Professor Eske Willerslev, Globe Institute, UCPH.

The researchers have also discovered that the viruses circulating during the Viking Age were distinct from their modern counterparts, and not directly ancestral to the viruses that caused the last big outbreak of smallpox in the 20th century.

“They share a common ancestor, but they also have unique features that differentiate them from the ones circulating later on in history. It turns out that the viruses we have found were some of these very, very early and different versions of the devastating pathogens known from the 20th century. It is the first time we can trace these early smallpox viruses and compare their genomes and mutations and see how the disease evolved over time,” says Eske Willerslev.

Catalogue of Mutations

Even though the disease has been eradicated today, it is still very useful to know how it developed and mutated through the ages.

Smallpox is a so-called poxvirus, a large family of viruses with many different types infecting a diverse set of host species. One such example is monkeypox, which typically infects monkeys but has also been known to cause a disease similar to smallpox in humans. It is therefore useful to known how other types of poxviruses mutate and survive.

“When we know how the disease mutated through time, it gives us an opportunity to put together a catalogue of how these pathogens might mutate in the future: What mutations and combinations make such a pathogen viable and successful? If they had those mutations in the past, they can most likely get them again.”

“It is one of a few examples where ancient genetic research has direct implications for present-day and future health,” says Martin Sikora.

UNIVERSITY OF COPENHAGEN THE FACULTY OF HEALTH AND MEDICAL SCIENCES

Header Image Credit : CDC/ Dr. Fred Murphy

Download the HeritageDaily mobile application on iOS and Android

More on this topic

LATEST NEWS

Karahundj – The Ancient Speaking Stones

Karahundj, also called Carahunge and Zorats Karer is an ancient stone complex, constructed on a mountain plateau in the Syunik Province of Armenia.

Palaeontologists Establish Spinosaurus Was Real Life ‘River Monster’

A discovery of more than a thousand dinosaur teeth, by a team of researchers from the University of Portsmouth, proves beyond reasonable doubt that Spinosaurus, the giant predator made famous by the movie Jurassic Park III as well as the BBC documentary Planet Dinosaur was an enormous river-monster.

Archaeology Uncovers Infectious Disease Spread – 4000 Years Ago

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.

Buhen – The Sunken Egyptian Fortress

Buhen was an ancient Egyptian settlement and fortress, located on the West bank of the Nile in present-day Sudan.

The Modhera Sun Temple

The Sun Temple is an ancient Hindu temple complex located on a latitude of 23.6° (near Tropic of Cancer) on the banks of the Pushpavati river at Modhera in Gujarat, India.

Scientists Hunt For Lost WW2 Bunkers Designed to Hold Off Invasion

New research published by scientists from Keele, Staffordshire and London South Bank Universities, has unveiled extraordinary new insights into a forgotten band of secret fighters created to slow down potential invaders during World War Two.

Sea Ice Triggered the Little Ice Age

A new study finds a trigger for the Little Ice Age that cooled Europe from the 1300s through mid-1800s, and supports surprising model results suggesting that under the right conditions sudden climate changes can occur spontaneously, without external forcing.

Venus’ Ancient Layered, Folded Rocks Point to Volcanic Origin

An international team of researchers has found that some of the oldest terrain on Venus, known as tesserae, have layering that seems consistent with volcanic activity. The finding could provide insights into the enigmatic planet's geological history.

Popular stories

The Secret Hellfire Club and the Hellfire Caves

The Hellfire Club was an exclusive membership-based organisation for high-society rakes, that was first founded in London in 1718, by Philip, Duke of Wharton, and several of society's elites.

Port Royal – The Sodom of the New World

Port Royal, originally named Cagway was an English harbour town and base of operations for buccaneers and privateers (pirates) until the great earthquake of 1692.

Matthew Hopkins – The Real Witch-Hunter

Matthew Hopkins was an infamous witch-hunter during the 17th century, who published “The Discovery of Witches” in 1647, and whose witch-hunting methods were applied during the notorious Salem Witch Trials in colonial Massachusetts.

Did Corn Fuel Cahokia’s Rise?

A new study suggests that corn was the staple subsistence crop that allowed the pre-Columbian city of Cahokia to rise to prominence and flourish for nearly 300 years.