Does a Homo erectus fossil recently discovered in Turkey show evidence of tuberculosis?
Well, the paper isn’t published yet, so we’ll have to wait and see. Human tuberculosis is “an acute or chronic infection of soft or skeletal tissues by Mycobacterium tuberculosis or M. bovis” (Aufderheide and Rodríguez-Martín, 1998: 118). The first of these is conducted via droplet infection from human to human, the second through ingesting meat and milk from animals, particularly cattle, or via droplet infection (Roberts, 2000: 151).
Whilst nobody disputes that it is a disease of some antiquity, some of the earliest cases I know about (if there are any older, please do leave a comment with the reference) come from Neolithic Italy (Canci et al., 1996; Formicola et al., 1987). If the news of this new fossil is true, it is a massive leap back in time as far as the known history of the disease goes.
In the meantime, the following blogs raise some interesting points that we need to consider whilst we’re thinking about this topic:
’Tuberculosis in an archaic human‘ – John Hawks
’Dark-skinned H. erectus had tuberculosis?‘ – Gene Expression
’500,000 year old Homo erectus from Turkey, and with Tuberculosis‘ – Anthropology.net
Aufderheide, A. C. and Rodríguez-Martín, C. 1998. The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Human Paleopathology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Canci, A., Minozzi, S., and Borgognini, S. M. 1996. New evidence of tuberculous spondylitis from Neolithic Liguria (Italy). International Journal of Osteoarchaeology 6: 497-501.
Formicola, V., Milanesi, Q., and Scarsini, C. 1987. Evidence of spinal tuberculosis at the beginning of the Fourth Millennium BC from Arene Candide Cave (Liguria, Italy). American Journal of Physical Anthropology 72: 1-6.
Roberts, C. 2000. Infectious Disease in Biocultural Perspective: Past, Present and Future Work in Britain, pp 145 – 162. In Cox, M and Mays, S (eds.) Human Osteology in Archaeology and Forensic Science. London: Greenwich Medical Media Ltd.