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A new meaning to “back to the bible”

A biological anthropologist from Appalachian State University working with an undergraduate student from Appalachian, an evolutionary biologist from UNC Greensboro, and a team of archaeologists from Deccan College (Pune, India) recently reported analysis of a 4000-year-old skeleton from India bearing evidence of leprosy.

This skeleton represents both the earliest archaeological evidence for human infection with Mycobacterium leprae in the world and the first evidence for the disease in prehistoric India.

The study, published in the journal PLoS One, demonstrates that leprosy was present in human populations in India by the end of the mature phase of the Indus Civilization (2000 B.C.) and provides support for one hypothesis about prehistoric transmission routes for the disease. This finding also supports the hypothesis that the Sanskrit Atharva Veda, composed before the first millennium B.C., is the earliest written reference to the disease and that burial traditions in the second millennium B.C. in one northwestern Indian village bear some resemblance to practices in Hindu tradition today.

As infectious diseases go, leprosy is still one of the least well-understood, in part because the Mycobacterium is difficult to culture for research and it has only one other animal host, the nine banded armadillo. An Indian or African origin for the disease has often been assumed based on historical sources that support an initial spread of the disease from Asia to Europe with Alexander the Great’s army after 400 B.C. Skeletal evidence for the disease was previously limited to 300-400 B.C. in Egypt and Thailand.

A report on genomics of Mycobacterium published in the magazine Science by Monot and colleagues in 2005, indicated the disease may have originated in Africa during the Late Pleistocene and that M. leprae spread out of Africa sometime after 40,000 years ago, when human population densities were small. A counter hypothesis was proposed in the same volume of Science by Pinhasi and colleagues suggesting that the same data could be interpreted as evidence for a Late Holocene migration of the disease out of India after the development of large urban centers.

Dr. Robbins and colleagues report on a case of leprosy in a skeleton buried around 2000 B.C. in Rajasthan, India, at the site of Balathal. From 3700-1800 B.C., Balathal was a large agrarian settlement at the margins of the Indus (or Harappan) Civilization. The mature phase of the Indus Civilization during the latter half of the third millennium B.C., was a period of social complexity characterized by urbanization, a system of writing, standardized weights and measures, monumental architecture, and trade networks that stretched to Mesopotamia and beyond.

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