1st Anglo-Saxon Man With Leprosy Hailed From Scandinavia

All hail the newest, most shock-laden bioarchaeological find: the first person in Britain to have been stricken with leprosy, it seems, turned out to be Scandinavian. Unearthed over 50 years ago in Greater Chesterford (an ancient village in Essex, England whose remarkable archaeological excavations include Belgic jewelry and Bronze Age artifacts), the young Anglo-Saxon male skeleton proved, after investigation, to show signs of the 3I leprosy strain. This strain is of a class historically designated to skeletal remains from Medieval Britain and the Scandinavian countries of Denmark and Sweden.

An in-depth look at the skeleton and its biological makeup

English Heritage, a national charity that overlooks the country’s most prominent historical monuments and remains, recently transferred the bones to the University of Southampton, where a group of Dutch and British researches undertook the analysis. The skeleton was carbon-dated between the 5th and 6th centuries AD, and showed that the young man’s foot bones had been eaten away. In addition, his lower legs were spotted with lesions. Both of these signs tell of an affliction with leprosy, a chronic infection whose symptoms include, most typically, severe inflammation of the respiratory tract, nerves, eyes and skin.

Ultimately, an ancient DNA (or aDNA) study of the bones was required to further understand the roots of the disease. The researchers initiated a study to look for concrete signs of Mycobacterium leprae, the bacterium that causes leprosy, and to identify the exact leprosy strain. The team concluded that, not only did the man carry M. leprae DNA, his was that of the 3I strain, a strain that is noted to have been first brought over to the U.S. by Europeans.

Astounding geographic placement through the sturdiest of all features: teeth

Merely identifying the 3I strain didn’t justify the geographical origins of the man. Information extracted from isotopic studies of the skeleton’s second molar showed that the food eaten by this man transferred traces of strontium and oxygen that presented an isotopic ratio unique to one region: northern Europe. Researchers are estimating that the man must have migrated from his homeland to England as a boy, and that he subsequently brought along the new 3I strain of leprosy to the continent.