The newspaper of Imperial College London
 Issue 125, 15 January 2003
The future starts here«
Knighthood for head of surgery«
Proud Ravinder knighted«
Sparks across the park«
Taking LEAD with seven point plan«
Advanced Civil Engineering Education Initiative«
Britain's earliest TB victim«
Professor Peter Hills«
Academic training courses«
Optimising performance«
Shining a new light on the eye«
Imperial College Volunteer Centre«
New look gym at Wye«
In brief«
Media spotlight«
What's onů«

Britain's earliest TB victim

by Tanya Reed

IMPERIAL College scientists have helped discover the truth behind the earliest case yet recorded of tuberculosis in Britain.

English Heritage skeletal remains expert Dr Simon Mays with the lower jaw from 2,300 year old Iron Age skeleton found in Dorset. It is the earliest TB victim ever found in this country

A rare skeleton from the Iron Age, discovered in a grave in Tarrant Hinton, Dorset, was subjected to thorough DNA testing which found destruction in the spinal vertebrae typical of tuberculosis infection, known in Victorian times as the White Death and recognised primarily as a respiratory disease which can also attack the spine, causing distortion, acute discomfort and a distinctive hunched stance.

Radiocarbon dating was used to discover that the man, aged between 30 and 40, died between 400 and 230 BC. Until recently, the earliest case recorded in Britain was from Roman times in the 1st century AD. The earliest known human case worldwide is from Italy and dates from the 4th millennium BC.

Although DNA taken from the vertebrae confirmed the presence of the TB bacillus, it was too degraded to allow identification of the exact species. In future, scientists hope to refine techniques of extraction and analysis sufficiently to enable them to the map the evolution of the disease.

Imperial research fellow, Dr Michael Taylor, who worked with English Heritage scientists on the project, explained: "It used to be thought the species usually responsible for human tuberculosis, which was particularly widespread in medieval times, developed from the bovine form, following the domestication of animals some 10,000 years ago.

"The opportunity to study ancient TB cases gave us the possibility to test the recent models which have arisen for the evolution of the M. tuberculosis complex. We now know that there were early, ancestral strains of tuberculosis and more recent strains which can be subdivided into three broad groups depending on DNA sequence at variable regions of the genome.

"We hope in the near future to refine our methods for identifying the causative species and return to study this case."

The TB was diagnosed on one of two skeletons found buried in separate oval graves to the south of a small rural settlement on a chalk hill overlooking the River Tarrant. Evidence of several roundhouses and pottery from excavated pits suggested a date range for the settlement from the 7th century BC until the 1st century AD. The site had been subsequently occupied by a large Roman villa where the remains of fine painted wall plaster and a wooden pump were found.

Alan Graham, archaeologist and Field Monument Warden with English Heritage, who is writing the report of the excavations at the site, undertaken between 1967 and 1985 by the Wimborne Archaeological Group, said: "The use of radiocarbon dating to show that the burial could have been as early as 400BC was important, as no other evidence of its date was available.

Very few burials of the early and middle Iron Age have been found in this part of England, perhaps because British tribes were disposing of their dead in such a way that we can't recognise them in the archaeological record."

Dr Simon Mays, expert in human skeletal remains at English Heritage, added: "This is the earliest case of TB yet found in Britain and it indicates that even in a remote rural settlement the disease was here centuries before the Roman Conquest.

"It could have come over from the continent, where we know the disease was present in prehistoric times, through well established trading links with Dorset."

A paper about the case will appear in the International Journal of Osteoarchaeology later this year.

The skeleton can be viewed by prior arrangement with the Priest's House Museum and Garden in Wimborne. Contact Emma Ayling on 01202 882533.

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