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Researchers Discover Earliest Evidence Of Leprosy In India

May 27, 2009

Researchers claim to have discovered the earliest evidence of leprosy in a 4,000-year-old skeleton from India.

Gwen Robbins, an anthropologist at Appalachian State University, and a team of archaeologists from Deccan College in Pune, India, found the skeleton at the site of Balathal in Rajasthan. The region was thriving from about 3700 to 1800 B.C., they reported in the peer-reviewed journal PLoS One.

Robbins’ team reported that the skeleton shows evidence of erosion caused by leprosy. It represents both the earliest archaeological evidence for human infection with Mycobacterium leprae in the world and the first evidence for the disease in prehistoric India, they said.

The find also confirms a hypothesis based on the Sanskrit Atharva Veda, composed before the first millennium B.C., which is the earliest written reference to the disease.

The Atharva Veda is a series of Sanskrit hymns aimed at describing health problems can treatments in ancient India. Researchers admit that it is hard to diagnose leprosy based on these ancient descriptions of health issues, but evidence from Balathal suggests that the authors were, in fact, referring to the disease in the subcontinent in prehistoric times.

Additionally, scientists noted that the skeleton was placed in a stone tomb that was filled with vitrified ash from burned cow dung, the most sacred and purifying of substances in Vedic tradition.

Scientists still don’t have the full picture on the origins or transmission of leprosy partly because the Mycobacterium is difficult to culture for research and it can only be found in one other species ““ the nine banded armadillo.

Researchers have assumed that the infectious disease originated in either India or Africa and began to spread from Asia to Europe with Alexander the Great’s army after 400 B.C.

A 2005 report on genomics of Mycobacterium published in the magazine Science found evidence to suggest that leprosy is historically rooted in Africa, where it first appeared during the Late Pleistocene and spread sometime after 40,000 years ago.

However, a counter hypothesis in the same volume indicated that the same data could provide evidence for a Late Holocene migration of the disease out of India during urbanization.

Previously reported evidence of leprosy has been dated to 300 to 400 B.C. in Egypt and Thailand.

An estimated 212,000 cases of leprosy were reported last year, according to the World Health Organization.

The American Institute of Indian Studies, the George Franklin Dales Foundation, Fulbright, and the University of Oregon Graduate School provided funding for the research project.

Image Caption: A photomicrograph of Mycobacterium leprae taken from a leprosy skin lesion (CDC).

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