- from the August 30 publication of Nature...
Earliest malaria DNA found in Roman baby graveyard
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."