Oldest evidence of leprosy traced to India

May 27th, 2009 - 4:18 pm ICT by IANS  

Washington, May 27 (IANS) A child’s 4,000-year-old skeleton that surfaced in India’s Rajasthan state could be the oldest evidence of leprosy, says a new study.
The analysis was conducted by biological anthropologist Gwen Robbins from Appalachian State University working with an undergraduate, an evolutionary biologist from University of North Carolina at Greensboro and archaeologists from the Pune-based Deccan College in India.

Robbins and colleagues said the skeleton was buried around 2000 B.C. in Balathal in Rajasthan, India. From 3700-1800 B.C., Balathal was a large agrarian settlement at the margins of the Indus (or Harappan) Civilization.

As infectious diseases go, leprosy is still one of the least well-understood, in part because the Mycobacterium that causes it is difficult to culture for research and it has only one other animal host, the nine banded armadillo.

A 2005 report on genomics of Mycobacterium leprae indicated the disease may have originated in Africa during the Late Pleistocene and that the Mycobacterium spread out of Africa sometime around 40,000 years ago.

But a counter-hypothesis suggested that the same data could be interpreted as evidence for a Late Holocene migration of the disease out of India after the development of large urban centres.

The presence of leprosy at Balathal 4,000 years ago also supports translations of the Eber’s papyrus in Egypt and the Atharva Veda, a Sanskrit text in India, that refer to the disease as early as 1550 B.C.

Furthermore, in Hindu tradition, burial is uncommon unless an individual is a highly respected member of the community or is seen as unfit to be sacrificed through cremation.

These latter individuals are buried, including outcastes, pregnant women, children under five, victims of magic or curses, and lepers, said an Appalachian release.

During the second millennium B.C., when there was disintegration of Indus settlements and new, adult burial becomes rare, children under five begin to predominate in the skeletal assemblages, and this early leper was one of only five individuals buried at the site of Balathal.

These findings were published in the Wednesday edition of the open-access, peer-reviewed journal PLoS ONE.

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