Leprosy, smallpox, hepatitis: Merovingian subjects suffered from everything at once

(ORDO NEWS) — Researchers have studied graves in a German cemetery from the Dark Ages and found a rural community plagued by disease.

The journal Genome Biology published the work of researchers from the University of Kiel (Germany).

They studied DNA extracted from the skeletal remains of 70 people who were buried in the cemetery of the rural community of Lauchheim (the territory of modern Germany).

All burials are dated to the early Middle Ages, or rather, the era of the Merovingians , long-haired mystic kings (5th-8th centuries AD).

It turned out that more than a third of the buried people suffered from various infectious diseases during their lifetime. And sometimes from several at once.

Leprosy smallpox hepatitis Merovingian subjects suffered from everything at once 2
The skull of a young man who suffered from leprosy, hepatitis B and parvovirus at the same time

Using DNA extracted from the roots of each person’s teeth, the researchers determined what diseases they suffered, if any.

They also studied the bones of the dead, although they claim that only certain diseases leave clear marks on the bones.

As a result, scientists found that a third of the dead were infected with at least one of these infections: hepatitis B, parvovirus B19 (causes anemia and some other diseases), smallpox virus, Mycobacterium leprae (one of the two bacteria that cause leprosy).

In seven infected, a combination of two diseases was revealed, and in one – three at once. The last was a very young man: he was diagnosed with hepatitis, leprosy and parvovirus.

“Tooth roots are well supplied with blood throughout life, so the pathogens we found in them were probably circulating in the bloodstream.

It takes time for bone to change in response to infection. This happens, for example, with leprosy, a relatively slowly progressing disease, ”the authors of the work noted.

Hepatitis B, which is found in DNA rather than traces on the skeleton, usually leads to inflammation of the liver and, in rare cases, to liver failure or liver cancer, but does not affect the bones. Parvovirus and smallpox leave no traces on the skeleton either.

The smallpox virus that scientists discovered in an early medieval German cemetery is genetically quite different from the smallpox of the 20th century.

But it also differs from the oldest European specimen found to date, found in an early medieval burial in Britain.

It is possible that the spread of viruses went in two directions, as it did with the Plague of Justinian . In this case, different strains of smallpox could enter Britain and Germany.

The high incidence of leprosy in the countryside is noteworthy because in the 7th and 8th centuries it was not yet widespread north of the Alps.

The authors want to learn from the genome of the causative agent of leprosy M. leprae how the European epidemic of this disease began and how the virus developed in subsequent centuries.

Leprosy smallpox hepatitis Merovingian subjects suffered from everything at once 3
Under the Merovingians, plague doctors do not yet walk around Europe, but the events that led to major epidemics are already beginning to unfold

Why did so many people in this small rural community suffer from such a variety of illnesses? The researchers concluded that a number of factors could have intervened, such as climate change during the Late Antique Little Ice Age (VI-VII century AD).

During this period, the average temperature in the Northern Hemisphere dropped by about two degrees, leading to widespread crop failures and famine.

According to scientists, cold snap and hunger caused a general weakening of the immune system of people.

And increased susceptibility to disease, in turn, could make it possible for diseases to cross over from animals to humans and adapt as new hosts.

In addition, diseases may spread more widely in new populations, and the Dark Ages are precisely the time when the peoples of Europe are mixed and shifted from their places by a wave from the east, the Great Migration.

The European states of the Middle Ages are only being formed and will be in a state of redistribution for several more centuries.

This may be a plausible explanation for how pathogens took hold in human populations and then led to major pandemic outbreaks as early as a few centuries later, during the Middle Ages.


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