Tracing 3,000 years of disease history

Tracking down malaria in bone and dental samples from North Africa, the Mediterranean, and Central Europe using innovative technologies and an interdisciplinary approach

Historical medical records and modern genetic studies suggest that malaria was one of the most common causes of death in many regions for several millennia and thus also influenced settlement patterns as well as political and social processes. In contrast to many other infectious diseases until now malaria is hardly possible to detect on human skeletal remains. The intention of the project is the creation of new biomolecular methods for the identification of malaria pathogens in bones and teeth in order to gain insights into the dissemination, development, and influence of sicknesses in the past.

Malaria in antiquity

Although malaria remains a major public health threat throughout large parts of the world, its origins and spread as well as its impact on ancient civilizations is still poorly understood. Infectious diseases, such as malaria, represent a key parameter of life in the past because they had an impact on settlement patterns and led to the growth or decline of populations but also triggered migrations. Thus, clarifying their distribution and epidemiology in the past is a crucial element in any attempt to comprehensively reconstructing human history and understanding the processes and dynamics that led to the formation of human societies both past and present. Human malaria is caused by four – according to recent research five or six – species of parasites of the genus Plasmodium. P. malariae, P. vivax, and P. falciparum have been known to be endemic in Europe throughout the last centuries, however, only the latter causes potentially lethal malaria. When P. falciparum spread to the northern Mediterranean remains a highly controversial question although it is frequently associated with the decline of the Mediterranean civilizations in late antiquity.  

Evidence of malaria in human skeletal remains

In contrast to many chronic infectious diseases malaria does not lead to any direct changes of the bone and, therefore, cannot be verified on the skeleton. Attempts at diagnosing indirect results of malaria infections on the skeleton, such as anemia, did not provide any satisfactory results. Even the biomolecular proof of the pathogen DNA, as has already been utilized successfully for many years for the plague or tuberculosis, has been exceedingly difficult for malaria. 

Project aims

The collaboration of archaeology, anthropology, parasitology, and history in cooperation with the research group of the malaria specialists Harald Nödl (Medical University of Vienna) and Albert Zink (EURAC, Bozen) will result in the development of innovative approaches for the identification of malaria pathogens in bone and dental samples of human remains. The following research aspects will be covered:

  • Bioarchaeological examination of human skeletal remains from archaeological sites in areas potentially endemic for malaria
  • Development of new biomolecular research protocols to identify the malaria parasite in bone and dental samples
  • Application of immunodiagnostic methods for the detection of malaria antigens in human skeletal material
  • Analysis of historical medical literature in order to embed the results into the cultural and historical context of the investigated skeletons

Paleopathology and evolutionary medicine

Through their historical and archaeological value as a source human skeletal remains permit long-term perspectives for population processes that are also highly relevant for modern clinical and epidemiological research. Knowledge about the etiology of pathogens as well as their interaction with the human host can be an important step for the understanding and thus also for the development of new strategies in the fight against these diseases. In connection with data on the environment, culture, or social status of the group under study human skeletal remains can yield important insights into the evolution of relations between pathogens and hosts, the origin of genetic variability, and the risk factors of many diseases. Thus, the study of the almost unknown genetic and epidemiological history of malaria could entail an important step towards better understanding the disease and, therefore, also lead to the development of new ways in fighting what still continues to be one of the deadliest infectious diseases world-wide.