Scientists discover Neanderthal man was infected with plague

Scientists have discovered that a Neanderthal man lived in a cave in Hungary roughly 25,000 years ago, and picked up a disease called bubonic plague, which turned out to be the first human-to-human transfer of the deadly disease.

The situation in humans has rarely been better with just 10,000 deaths from bubonic plague until 1858 in the UK. If the disease had been imported, it is unlikely that the epidemic would have come to us through the plagues of infectious disease, which tend to flow from animals to humans and back again, said a report in Nature.

Its discovery also suggests that Homo sapiens were not always isolated from Neanderthals, and point to more interesting historical events from that era. The scientists were led by Jan Vanduijn of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, and Zoltán Konys of the University of Szeged in Hungary.

Their research found the man was found in a cave at Torvázze, in what is now Hungary, and was aged between 24 and 28 at the time. Although Neanderthals and humans have died out and most have found in extinction, until now only evidence of Neanderthal people had ever been found at the cave.

They found he had a bone fracture in one leg, likely caused by a hammer attack, blood clots in his lungs, what appeared to be spleen damage, and an extensive bacterial infection in the femur. All of these were consistent with the bubonic plague.

Dr Kenton Janzen, the chair of the Department of Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology at the University of Oxford, told ScienceAlert: “This is a fascinating example of the fact that infectious diseases can be transferred to an infected individual, becoming more likely when the human-animal risk factors for infection is present.

“Most infectious diseases only develop after the population is large enough, and there is no evidence of this in Europe. In the modern genome-wide association studies, we have shown that inheriting a single variant of a strain of a contagious disease – for example, a common rodent faecal bacteria or variants of a viral infection – increases the risk of infection in an individual, so it seems important to investigate ‘selected’ (or only locally transmitted) diseases for which an increased risk has been seen in humans.”

This study is notable because it shows that two very closely related species, Neanderthals and humans, can take and pass diseases from one another over huge distances, said Dr Tony Hunter, co-director of the Centre for Gerontology Research at the University of Essex.

“This is the first time that a disease transmitted by the fleas of a wild mammal was found to have made its way into humans, and the connection to the anthrax epidemic in the 19th century suggests that disease could easily have also been brought from the west coast of the Americas in that way,” he said.

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