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The surprising, ancient origins of TB, humanity’s most deadly disease

New developments in a 10,000-year-old cold case have upended our ideas about how and when tuberculosis began infecting humans – and offered hope for a better vaccine



Health



23 June 2021

Israel G. Vargas

THIS was the coldest of cold cases. The remains of 83 people had lain under the earthen floor of a house in Dja’de el’Mughara, northern Syria, for thousands of years. Who put them there was no mystery: people living in the region during the Stone Age often buried their dead beneath their homes. But the cause of death – for some at least – was totally unexpected. When archaeologists carefully examined the bones, they discovered signs that five of these individuals had tuberculosis. They are the oldest confirmed cases that we know of.

The discovery is significant. Finding evidence of TB in people who died some 10,000 years ago challenges a long-held idea about the origins of this, the most deadly infectious disease to afflict humanity. It is a key piece in the puzzle that researchers are trying to put together to reveal where and how TB started to sicken humans and how it spread around the world. That isn’t just academic. We need this information to find new ways to fight TB, which currently kills at least 1.7 million people every year. By looking closely at the Dja’de el’Mughara remains, and other very cold cases, we might finally be able to stop this indiscriminate killer.

Tuberculosis is caused by the bacterium Mycobacterium tuberculosis, which generally infects the respiratory system and spreads from person to person via airborne droplets. From the 17th century until the 19th century, it caused 20 per cent of all deaths in the Western world. German microbiologist Robert Koch won a Nobel prize for his discovery of the pathogen in 1882. A vaccine – BCG …

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