Scientists re-examine a Neanderthal fossil have found one of the earliest examples of disease jumping from animals to humans.
The specimen known as the “Old Man of La Chapelle” was discovered in 1908 in a cave near the French village of La Chapelle-aux-Saints.
The researchers, including Martin Heusler of the University of Zurich in Germany, said it is the first nearly complete prehistoric human fossil ever discovered and one of the most studied.
Earlier studies found that humans died about 50,000 years ago when they were in their 50s or late 60s and had osteoarthritis, the most common type of arthritis, in their spinal column and hip joint. .
But not all deformities in the Old Man could be explained by wear and tear caused by osteoarthritis.
In the new study, published last month in the journal Scientific Reports, scientists found that some of these pathological changes were due to inflammation caused by the bacterial disease brucellosis.
According to the World Health Organization, the disease infects cattle and humans contract it when they come in direct contact with infected animals.
Scientists found signs of brucellosis in pathological lesions and caries on spinal cord samples from ancient humans, which belong to the same hominin category as modern humans.
“This means the earliest secure evidence of this zoonotic disease in hominin evolution,” the scientists wrote in the study.
Brucellosis, which is still widespread today, causes fever, muscle aches and night sweats that last from weeks to years. Researchers suspect that it could have been transmitted to Neanderthals through butchering or eating raw meat.
In many cases, the disease can cause arthritic pain and testicular swelling that can lead to infertility, as well as inflammation of the heart valves – the most common cause of death from brucellosis.
It is one of the most common zoonotic diseases – diseases transmitted from animals to humans – such as Ebola and COVID-19.
According to the study, the bacteria that cause brucellosis have been reported in a wide range of wildlife, including wild sheep, goats, cattle, European bison, reindeer and wild boar – animals thought to be important components of the Neanderthal diet.
“Contrary to today’s experience in slaughterhouses, or by eating raw meat, Neanderthals were likely infected with brucellosis during butchering of prey animals,” the scientists wrote in the study.
But since the Old Man of La Chapelle lived to his 60s – a very old age for the period – researchers suspect he may have contracted a milder version of the disease.
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