Neanderthal Tuberculosis: Clues to a Prehistoric Disease
Uncovering the First Known Tuberculosis Cases in Neanderthals and Its Impact on Their Fate
The mysteries of Neanderthal life grow deeper as new research uncovers evidence of tuberculosis (TB) in these ancient hominins. Examining skeletal remains from Hungary, scientists reveal insights into the health challenges faced by our prehistoric cousins and the potential role of disease in their demise.
Neanderthals, our evolutionary relatives, roamed Central Europe some 35,000 years ago, as genetic analysis of their bones now reveals. In a landmark study1 published in Tuberculosis journal, international researchers revisited Neanderthal remains found in Hungary's Subalyuk Cave. This deep dive into ancient bones unveiled the first documented cases of TB in Neanderthals.
The Subalyuk Cave Discovery
Located in the Bükk Mountains, Subalyuk Cave served as a crucial site for both humans and animals during the Middle to Late Paleolithic era. Among the remains unearthed were the remains of an adult female and a child, estimated to be around 3 to 4 years old at the time of death. Carbon dating pinpointed their demise to approximately 33,000 to 38,000 years ago, coinciding with the Neanderthals' twilight.
Traces of Disease
Examination of the Neanderthal skeletons revealed telltale signs of TB infection. Both individuals displayed lytic lesions—holes in the bone indicative of bone loss—along the spine and within the child's skull. These skeletal anomalies pointed to a diagnosis of tuberculosis, marking a significant milestone in our understanding of ancient diseases.
To validate their findings, researchers conducted DNA analysis on bone samples from the Neanderthal skeletons. The presence of Mycobacterium tuberculosis DNA confirmed the diagnosis. Spoligotyping, a gene sequencing technique, further supported the identification of TB in the child. Lipid biomarker analysis also underscored the prevalence of tuberculosis in both Neanderthals.
Unraveling the Origins
The question remains: How did Neanderthals contract TB? Clues lie in the environmental context of the Late Pleistocene era. Evidence of TB in ancient European megafauna, such as bison, suggests that Neanderthals may have acquired the disease through hunting and consuming infected animals. This transmission pathway highlights the intricate ecological interplay between humans and their prey.
Implications for Extinction
The revelation of TB in Neanderthals opens a new chapter in the debate surrounding their demise. Could disease have hastened their extinction? Researchers propose that TB, as both a health threat and a factor in prey population decline, may have contributed to the decline of Neanderthal communities. Further exploration of this hypothesis promises fresh insights into our ancient relatives' fate.
As scientists delve deeper into Neanderthal biology and behavior, the study of ancient diseases offers a window into prehistoric life. By unraveling the mysteries of TB in Neanderthals, researchers pave the way for a more comprehensive understanding of human evolution. As the past beckons with its enigmatic stories, each discovery brings us closer to unraveling the secrets of our shared ancestry.
Pálfi, G., Molnár, E., Bereczki, Z., Coqueugniot, H., Dutour, O., Tillier, A.-M., Rosendahl, W., Sklánitz, A., Mester, Z., Gasparik, M., Maixner, F., Zink, A., Minnikin, D. E., & Pap, I. (2023). Re-examination of the Subalyuk Neanderthal remains uncovers signs of probable TB infection (Subalyuk Cave, Hungary). Tuberculosis (Edinburgh, Scotland), 143(102419), 102419. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tube.2023.102419