In the early 1950’s, workers digging for gravel uncovered skeletons of people interred in an Anglo-Saxon cemetery a millennium and a half before. At the time, the team noted that the bones of one man in particular had joint damage and the narrow toe bones typically caused by leprosy. When researchers recently reanalyzed those same bones using modern techniques they realized the man may have had the first case of the disease in Britain. On top of that, other tests show that he was probably from Scandinavia, not Britain.
The researchers were able to gather some bacterial DNA from the bones and sequence it, reports Maev Kennedy for The Guardian. They genetic fingerprint they found was that of a leprosy strain belonging to the lineage 3I, which has been found at other burial sites in Scandinavia and southern Britain but at later dates. The man likely died in the 5th or 6th century.
“The radiocarbon date confirms this is one of the earliest cases in the UK to have been successfully studied with modern biomolecular methods," says Sonia Zakrzewski, of the University of Southampton in a press release. "This is exciting both for archaeologists and for microbiologists. It helps us understand the spread of disease in the past, and also the evolution of different strains of disease, which might help us fight them in the future.”
The research team also analyzed elements in the man’s teeth. Specifically, they looked at several isotopes — element can different numbers of neutrons, each of variation is a different isotope. They measured the ratio oxygen isotopes, which reflect those found in the water he drank, and strontium isotopes found in his enamel, which reflect the geology of his homeland, explains Maddie Stone for Vice. This analysis told the researchers that the man likely came from Scandinavia. He may have carried the disease to Britain from there. When he died, he was in his 20s, the researchers report. They published their findings in PLOS One.
The 3I leprosy strain is one of five strains found around the world. It not only gave rise to the leprosy of the British Isles, but that in the southern U.S. (where it’s often carried by armadillos) and in the U.K. even today. However, the leprosy epidemic didn’t peak in Europe until the 13th century. If the man had seen a physician in his new country, they wouldn’t have recognized the deformations and scaly skin of a leprosy infection. Perhaps he would have escaped the social stigma that later arose around the disease too.
This man isn't the first person in the world to get leprosy, explains Stone. "There are a handful of cases worldwide that predate this young man, including several from second century BC Egypt, first century AD Israel, and 1st through 4th century AD Uzbekistan," she writes. But he is the first known case in Britain.
The team’s project leader, Sarah Inskip of Leiden University told Stone: “We plan to carry out similar studies on skeletons from different locations to build up a more complete picture of the origins and early spread of this disease.”