Detecting Ancient Tuberculosis

Angela M. Gernaey 1, David E. Minnikin 2, Mark S. Copley 1, Jacinda J. Power 1, Ali M. S. Ahmed 2, Ronald A. Dixon 3, Charlotte A. Roberts 4, Duncan J. Robertson 5, John Nolan 6 and Andrew Chamberlain 7

1Fossil Fuels and Environmental Geochemistry and Department of Chemistry,
University of Newcastle, Newcastle upon Tyne, NE1 7RU
2Department of Chemistry, University of Newcastle, Newcastle upon Tyne, NE1 7RU
3Department of Biomedical Sciences, University of Bradford, Bradford, West Yorkshire, BD7 1DP
4formerly: Department of Archaeological Sciences, University of Bradford, Bradford, West Yorkshire, BD7 1DP
now: Department of Archaeology, University of Durham, DH1 3LE
5Archaeological Research and Consultancy (ARCUS), Research School of Archaeology, University of Sheffield, S1 4DT
6Northern Counties Archaeological Services, 4 Pelton Mews, Chester-le-Street, Durham, DH2 1QG
7Department of Archaeology and Prehistory, Northgate House, West Street, University of Sheffield, Sheffield, S1 4ET
Please address all correspondence to David E. Minnikin at david.minnikin@ncl.ac.uk

Cite this as: A.M. Gernaey et al. 1998 'Detecting Ancient Tuberculosis', Internet Archaeology 5. https://doi.org/10.11141/ia.5.3

Summary

Some diseases have played a more significant role in human development than others. Here we describe the results of a trial to diagnose ancient tuberculosis using chemical methods. Palaeo-epidemiological studies of the disease are compromised, but it has become apparent that tuberculosis (TB) is a 'population-density dependent' disease. From modern studies, it is also apparent that the prevalence of TB can be used as an indicator of the level of poverty within the studied population.

Mid-shaft rib samples from articulated individuals recovered from the former Newcastle Infirmary Burial Ground (1753-1845 AD) were examined for mycolic acids that are species-specific for Mycobacterium tuberculosis. The 24% of ribs positive for mycolic acids correlated with the documented 27% tuberculosis prevalence. Mycolic acid biomarkers have the potential to provide an accurate trace of the palaeo-epidemiology of tuberculosis in ancient populations, thereby providing an indication of the overall level of poverty - a useful adjunct for archaeology.

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