Brucellosis Infection in a Neanderthal
The earliest evidence to date of zoonotic disease in a hominin from 50,000 years ago
Brucellosis is a common zoonotic disease that is spread to humans via direct contact with infected animals or by consuming contaminated animal products, such as raw meat or unpasteurized milk or cheese, or even by inhaling airborne pathogens. The disease has wide manifestations, from night sweats and fevers to long-term issues such as arthritis, even endocarditis.
A new study1 in the open-access Nature journal Scientific Reports from internal medicine physician and head of the University of Zurich's Evolutionary Morphology and Adaptation Group at the Institute of Evolutionary Medicine, Martin Häusler, documents his discovery that the 50,000-year-old Neanderthal fossil remains, known as “Old Man of La Chapelle” or La Chapelle-aux-Saints 1, has pathological signs of Brucellosis. In 2019, Häusler published this analysis2 in PNAS, where he suggested this Neanderthal suffered from osteoarthritis or spondylosis.
A closer look made him skeptical of his prior assessment, as you can see from arrows C7 and T1 vertebra as well his description of his findings below:
…actual subchondral and marginal erosions at the inferior endplates of vertebrae C5 and C6, erosions in the right facet joints C4/5 and C7/T1 as well as both facet joints T9/10, lytic lesions in the extra-articular areas of T1 to S1, and erosions and reactive bone formation extending far beyond the left hip joint. Rather, the mixed picture of destructive and proliferative processes is typical of an inflammatory aetiology.
This makes Old Man of La Chapelle the oldest known example of zoonotic disease in a hominin. Previously, evidence of this disease has also been found in Bronze Age Homo sapiens skeletons, from 3,500 to 5,000 years ago in Bahrain, Jordan3, and Iran4. That is a pretty remarkable discovery in itself.
Aside from that, given that the Old Man of La Chapelle died around 50-60 years of age, the degree of degeneration due to brucellosis seen in his vertebrae implies that this Neanderthal probably had a milder version of the disease. If you don’t remember, this fossil individual had no teeth and was likely supported by his group for quite sometime before his death.
Rothschild, B., Haeusler, M. Possible vertebral brucellosis infection in a Neanderthal. Sci Rep 11, 19846 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-021-99289-7
Haeusler, M., Trinkaus, E., Fornai, C., Müller, J., Bonneau, N., Boeni, T., & Frater, N. (2019). Morphology, pathology, and the vertebral posture of the La Chapelle-aux-Saints Neandertal. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 116(11), 4923–4927. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1820745116
Rashidi, J., Ortner, D., Frohlich, B. & Jonsdottir, B. Brucellosis in Early Bronze Age Jordan and Bahrain: An analysis of possible cases of Brucella spondylitis. Am. J. Phys. Anthropol. Suppl. 32, 122–123 (2001).
Kafil, H. S., Hosseini, S. B., Sohrabi, M., & Asgharzadeh, M. (2014). Brucellosis: presence of zoonosis infection 3 500 years ago in North of Iran. Asian Pacific Journal of Tropical Disease, 4, S684–S686. https://doi.org/10.1016/S2222-1808(14)60707-6