Timeless Travels Magazine - - CONTENTS -

An in­ter­na­tional team led by the Univer­sity of Lei­den ex­am­ined a 1500 year old male skele­ton, ex­ca­vated at Great Ch­ester­ford in Es­sex (south east Eng­land) dur­ing the 1950s. The bones of the man, prob­a­bly in his 20s, show changes con­sis­tent with le­prosy, such as nar­row­ing of the toe bones and dam­age to the joints, sug­gest­ing a very early Bri­tish case. Mod­ern sci­en­tific tech­niques ap­plied by the re­searchers have now con­firmed the man did suf­fer from the dis­ease and that he may have come from south­ern Scan­di­navia.

Ar­chae­ol­o­gist Dr So­nia Zakrzewski, of the Univer­sity of Southamp­ton, ex­plains DNA test­ing was nec­es­sary to get a clear di­ag­no­sis: “Not all cases of le­prosy can be iden­ti­fied by changes to the skele­ton. Some may leave no trace on the bones; oth­ers will af­fect bones in a sim­i­lar way to other dis­eases. In these cases the only way to be sure is to use DNA fin­ger­print­ing, or other chem­i­cal mark­ers char­ac­ter­is­tic of the le­prosy bacil­lus.”

Iso­topes from the man’s teeth showed that he prob­a­bly did not come from Bri­tain, but more likely grew up else­where in north­ern Europe, per­haps south­ern Scan­di­navia. This matched the re­sults of the DNA, and raises the in­trigu­ing pos­si­bil­ity that he brought a Scan­di­na­vian strain of the le­prosy bac­terium with him when he mi­grated to Bri­tain. There are cases in early skele­tons from western Europe, par­tic­u­larly from the 7th cen­tury CE on­ward. How­ever the ori­gins of these an­cient cases are poorly un­der­stood. The study of the Great Ch­ester­ford skele­ton pro­vides an im­por­tant op­por­tu­nity to shed light on the early spread of le­prosy.

Foot bones of the Great Ch­ester­ford skele­ton

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