Date:

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.

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.

- Advertisement -

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 Bình 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.

- Advertisement -

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.”

UNIVERSITY OF OTAGO

Header Image Credit : Dr. Camille Toledo

- Advertisement -
spot_img
Mark Milligan
Mark Milligan
Mark Milligan is multi-award-winning journalist and the Managing Editor at HeritageDaily. His background is in archaeology and computer science, having written over 7,500 articles across several online publications. Mark is a member of the Association of British Science Writers (ABSW), the World Federation of Science Journalists, and in 2023 was the recipient of the British Citizen Award for Education, the BCA Medal of Honour, and the UK Prime Minister's Points of Light Award.
spot_img

Mobile Application

spot_img

Related Articles

Study confirms palace of King Ghezo was site of voodoo blood rituals

A study, published in the journal Proteomics, presents new evidence to suggest that voodoo blood rituals were performed at the palace of King Ghezo.

Archaeologists search for home of infamous Tower of London prisoner

A team of archaeologists are searching for the home of Sir Arthur Haselrig, a leader of the Parliamentary opposition to Charles I, and whose attempted arrest sparked the English Civil War.

Tartessian plaque depicting warrior scenes found near Guareña

Archaeologists from the Institute of Archaeology of Mérida (IAM) and the CSIC have uncovered a slate plaque depicting warrior scenes at the Casas del Turuñuelo archaeological site.

Archaeologists find a necropolis of stillborn babies

Excavations by the National Institute for Preventive Archaeological Research (Inrap) have unearthed a necropolis for stillborn and young children in the historic centre of Auxerre, France.

Researchers find historic wreck of the USS “Hit ‘em HARDER”

The Naval History and Heritage Command (NHHC) has confirmed the discovery of the USS Harder (SS 257), an historic US submarine from WWII.

Archaeologists uncover Roman traces of Vibo Valentia

Archaeologists from the Superintendent of Archaeology Fine Arts and Landscape have made several major discoveries during excavations of Roman Vibo Valentia at the Urban Archaeological Park.

Archaeologists uncover crypts of the Primates of Poland

Archaeologists have uncovered two crypts in the collegiate church in Łowicz containing the Primates of Poland.

Giant prehistoric rock engravings could be territorial markers

Giant rock engravings along the Upper and Middle Orinoco River in South America could be territorial markers according to a new study.