A 1,500-year-old skeleton dug up in England in the 1950s shows evidence of leprosy and may be one of the earliest cases in Great Britain, researchers say.
Narrowing of the toe bones and damage in many of the joints had always suggested the skeleton, of a man in his 20s who probably came to England from southern Scandinavia, suffered from the disease, they say.
Modern DNA research techniques, not available when the skeleton was unearthed in Essex decades ago, confirmed the leprosy diagnosis, says archaeologist Sonia Zakrzewski at the University of Southampton.
"Not all cases of leprosy can be identified by changes to the skeleton," she says. "Some may leave no trace on the bones; others will affect bones in a similar way to other diseases. In these cases the only way to be sure is to use DNA fingerprinting, or other chemical markers characteristic of the leprosy bacillus."
Also known as Hansen's disease, leprosy is an infection caused by the bacteria Mycobacterium leprae and Mycobacterium lepromatosis, which can damage nerves, skin, limbs and eyes.
The leprosy bacteria in the Essex skeleton matches what has been found previously in burials in Scandinavia and in southern Britain from the Medieval period, but the skeleton dates to a much earlier time, probably the 5th or 6th centuries A.D., the researchers say.
Isotopes in the teeth are evidence that the man likely grew up in some other part of northern Europe rather than in Britain where he was found, raising the possibility that he brought a strain of leprosy from Scandinavia with him to Britain, the international team of researchers reported in the journal PLOS ONE.
"The radiocarbon date confirms this is one of the earliest cases in the U.K. to have been successfully studied with modern biomolecular methods," says study leader leader Sarah Inskip of Leiden University in the Netherlands.
"This is exciting both for archaeologists and for microbiologists."
The findings can help in understanding the geographical spread of leprosy in the past and may also provide clues to the evolution of the different strains of disease, information that could help in combating the disease where it exists today, she says.
Leprosy nowadays is limited to the world's tropical regions, and although it was once found throughout Europe in the late Middle Ages, it has since died out there.