Leprosy, an infection caused by the bacteria Mycobacterium leprae, has affected humanity for thousands of years, spreading from the Middle East to Europe during the Roman Empire. According to new research, the disease likely arrived in the British Isles in the 5th or 6th century with a young man from Scandinavia.
In Britain, leprosy infection rates peaked between the 12th and 14th centuries, but the disease arrived much earlier. The remains of a man between 21 and 35 years old, known to scientists as Burial GC96, features some of the oldest evidence yet discovered for leprosy in Britain. In the journal PLOS ONE, researchers from the Netherlands and several UK universities identified changes to the bone that suggest leprosy, including lesions, joint damage and narrowing of the toe bones. They also used DNA testing to identify the particular strain of the leprosy-causing bacteria, which has been observed in other burials in medieval Scandinavia and Britain.
The man's remains were excavated from an Anglo-Saxon grave in Essex, England in the early 1950s. Radiocarbon dating shows that he was buried in the 5th or 6th century. Judging by DNA analysis and chemical testing of the man’s tooth enamel, which can reveal childhood origins, the man likely migrated to Britain from Europe, perhaps from southern Scandinavia.
While Britain may not have appreciated the gift of an infectious disease from Scandinavia, the northern European region would be instrumental in finding a cure a few centuries later. The bacteria that causes the disease was first identified in Norway in 1873.
And Brits may have re-gifted that particular strain of leprosy to the New World; it's still found today in the American South.