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roman babies

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  • aberland@pomona.edu
    from the August 30 publication of Nature... Earliest malaria DNA found in Roman baby graveyard Alison Abbott Malaria experts are helping archaeologists to work
    Message 1 of 1 , Aug 31, 2001
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      from the August 30 publication of Nature...

      Earliest malaria DNA found in Roman baby graveyard

      Alison Abbott

      Malaria experts are helping archaeologists to
      work out what caused the deaths of 47 babies
      whose bodies have been unearthed together
      in a fifth-century cemetery outside Rome.
      The experts think the tiny skeletons —
      including the bones of 22 miscarried fetuses
      — may have been victims of Plasmodium
      falciparum, an extremely virulent form of
      the organism that causes malaria. The
      Roman site could mark the northern edge of
      P. falciparum's penetration into Europe.
      The archaeologists who excavated the
      site, led by David Soren of the University of
      Arizona in Tuscon, are intrigued by its
      unusual configuration. The cemetery, at
      Lugnano, Umbria, was created in a ruined
      villa. The bones were found at different
      depths, with more at higher levels.
      "This is not the normal burial pattern
      for a Roman cemetery," says Soren. There
      were also signs of witchcraft at the burial
      site, including puppy skeletons, perhaps
      meant to ward off demons thought to cause
      disease. Study of the soil between the
      remains indicates that all the babies were
      buried within a few weeks.
      Medics suggest a malaria epidemic as the
      cause of the deaths. The honeycomb pattern
      of many of the bones suggests anaemia, a
      symptom of malaria, and severe malaria is
      implied in the era's literature.
      "Malaria is the most logical explanation
      for the deaths," says Mario Coluzzi, a
      parasitologist at the University of Rome.
      DNA studies, due to be published next
      month in Ancient Biomolecules, show the
      presence of P. falciparum DNA in the bones
      of the oldest infant — the earliest malaria
      DNA ever identified.
      "This is by no means proof that the cause
      of the infants' death was malaria," says
      Robert Sallares of the University of
      Manchester Institute of Science and
      Technology, UK, who led the DNA study,
      "but it allows it to remain a contender." 
      http://www.coh.arizona.edu/lugnano
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