Ancient Disease Uncovered At Troy

Vintage |

Archaeologists have made a remarkable discovery. A skeleton uncovered from the outer reaches of a historical site alleged to be Troy shows signs of an unknown infection from 800 years ago.

The skeleton belonged to a thirty year old woman who was buried in a Byzantine graveyard about 800 years ago. She, and all of the other people buried in the graveyard, showed the wear and tear of the hardscrabble rural life they led.

But this particular skeleton showed something extra. Henrike Kiesewetter, an archaeologist who examined her remains, discovered two calcified growths at the base of her chest. They were the size of strawberries, found below her ribs.

Originally, researchers assumed them to be a consequence of tuberculosis. But the theory didn't hold up. When they ran DNA tests on the nodules and examined them under a microscope, they determined that it was something other than tuberculosis or kidney / urinary stones that caused the growths.

The research team, stymied, sent samples to Hendrick Poinar of McMaster University for further analysis.


Poinar said of the nodules in a press release, “Amazingly, these samples yielded enough DNA to fully reconstruct the genomes of two species of bacteria, Staphylococcus saprophyticus and Gardnerella vaginalis, which infected the woman and likely led to her death."

We actually do not have DNA samples for that many diseases that afflicted us in ancient times. The new samples expand upon our genetic library of ancient maladies, among them cholera, tuberculosis, plague and leprosy.

A collection of scientists published a portrait of the infection in the journal eLife.

“Calcification made little tiny suitcases of DNA and transported it across an 800-year timespan. In this case, the amount and integrity of the ancient DNA was extraordinary. One typically gets less than 1 percent of the target organism.”

The woman appears to have died of chorioamnionitis, a bacterial disease that afflicts the placenta, amniotic fluid and fetal membranes. She likely died during pregnancy.

The genetic findings also help us construct a more accurate picture of what life was like for her contemporaries. It suggests that Byzantine-era peasants such as her lived in close quarters with the livestock they cared for.

“The strain from Troy belongs to a lineage that is not commonly associated with human disease in the modern world,” said a researcher named Caitlin Pepperell. “We speculate that human infections in the ancient world were acquired from a pool of bacteria that moved readily between humans, livestock and the environment.”

Kieswetter explained, "People were struggling with physical strains and infectious diseases and only a few lived beyond the age of 50. Many newborns did not survive infancy and almost all skeletons of children show signs of malnutrition and infection.”

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Matt lives in Southern California. He is interested in politics, history, literature and the natural world.