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Posted by on May 27, 2009 in Infectious diseases, Medical history

Leprosy Is So Old

Leprosy Is So Old


[Beat.] How old is it?

Human remains in Rajasthan, India (24°43’N 73°59’E) provide the oldest known evidence of infection with leprosy. Anthropologists from North Carolina and India describe tell-tale signs of bone pathology, consistent with the infection, in a 4000-year-old male skeleton uncovered about 40 km northeast of Udaipur. Findings unearthed at the site of the large Copper Age settlement are described in the latest issue of PLoS One.

The investigators describe widespread evidence for leprosy throughout the bones, including changes in the remarkably intact skull. Findings there are consistent with the characteristic rhinomaxillary syndrome (or leonine facies) of lepromatous leprosy (for an example, see Fig. 1 at link). Other possible infectious causes, like syphilis, leishmaniasis, and TB, were ruled out by the investigators, but additional data to support the conclusion of leprosy will be obtained from any recovered Mycobacterium DNA in the skeleton and geographically related bone collections. The oldest archeological evidence of leprosy, previous to this discovery, dated to the 1st millennium BC in Uzbekistan.

The authors claim that their skeletal remains support contemporaneous Sanskrit text in the Atharva Veda,* which described a plant treatment for leprosy.

Born by night art thou, O plant, dark, black, sable. Do thou, that art rich in colour, stain this leprosy, and the grey spots!…The leprosy which has originated in the bones, and that which has originated in the body and upon the skin, the white mark begotten of corruption, I have destroyed with my charm.

*Dating to the end of the 2nd millennium BC, according to Wikipedia.

Photograph of 4000-year-old skull shows various findings of bony erosion, remodeling, resorption, and necrosis, consistent with lepromatous leprosy.

bmartin (1130 Posts)

A native East Tennessean, Barbara Martin is a formerly practicing, board-certified neurologist who received her BS (psychology, summa cum laude) and MD from Duke University before completing her postgraduate training (internship, residency, fellowship) at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. She has worked in academia, private practice, medical publishing, drug market research, and continuing medical education (CME). For the last 3 years, she has worked in a freelance capacity as a medical writer, analyst, and consultant. Follow Dr. Barbara Martin on and Twitter.