Dating back thousands of years, tuberculosis was a killer in antiquity and is still one of the world’s deadliest diseases, with one third of the world’s population infected and approximately three million deaths per year. Now, the fight to find a cure for the disease could be boosted by the study of 6,000 year old human bones excavated by Kathleen Kenyon in Jericho in the 1950s.

The bones are being analysed by a joint Israeli-Palestinian-German research group specialising in palaeoepidemiology, the study of ancient diseases using material taken from mummified bodies and human remains. The aim is to understand the origins of tuberculosis and its evolution: Jericho is important because it is one of the earliest nucleated settlements, dating from 9000 BC, and hence likely to have been a place where communicable diseases might have developed.

Leading the Israeli team is Prof. Mark Spigelman, of the Kuvin Center for the Study of Infectious and Tropical Diseases at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, who said that, ‘preliminary work on the bones suggests that there is sufficient DNA in the samples to make a contribution to our understanding of the origin and development of microbial disease which could provide crucial information in the evolution of tuberculosis. By examining human and animal bones from Jericho, we will be able to see how the first people living in a crowded situation developed the diseases of crowds and how this affected the disease through changes in DNA, of both the microbes and the people’.

The inclusion of animal remains in the study is based on the theory that some communicable diseases resulted from the closer proximity of humans and animals, a consequence of the development of husbandry. Spigelman also believes that knowing how a disease developed in the past will help us understand what it will do as it continues to evolve, and will ultimately impact on the way that public health officials set about combating the disease. •


This article is an extract from the full article published in World Archaeology Issue 31. Click here to subscribe

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