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Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Infectious Diseases
Volume 2009, Article ID 437187, 9 pages
Review Article

Paleopathology of Human Tuberculosis and the Potential Role of Climate

Division of Paleopathology, Institute of Pathology, Academic Hospital Munich-Bogenhausen, Englschalkinger Str. 77, 81925 Munich, Germany

Received 1 June 2008; Revised 30 November 2008; Accepted 27 January 2009

Academic Editor: Bettina Fries

Copyright © 2009 Andreas G. Nerlich and Sandra Lösch. This is an open access article distributed under the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.


Both origin and evolution of tuberculosis and its pathogens (Mycobacterium tuberculosis complex) are not fully understood. The paleopathological investigation of human remains offers a unique insight into the molecular evolution and spread including correlative data of the environment. The molecular analysis of material from Egypt (3000–500 BC), Sudan (200–600 AD), Hungary (600–1700 AD), Latvia (1200–1600 AD), and South Germany (1400–1800 AD) urprisingly revealed constantly high frequencies of tuberculosis in all different time periods excluding significant environmental influence on tuberculosis spread. The typing of various mycobacteria strains provides evidence for ancestral M. tuberculosis strains in Pre- to early Egyptian dynastic material (3500–2650 BC), while typical M. africanum signatures were detected in a Middle Kingdom tomb (2050–1650 BC). Samples from the New Kingdom to Late Period (1500–500 BC) indicated modern M. tuberculosis strains. No evidence was seen for M. bovis in Egyptian material while M. bovis signatures were first identified in Siberian biomaterial dating 2000 years before present. These results contraindicates the theory that M. tuberculosis evolved from M. bovis during early domestication in the region of the “Fertile Crescent,” but supports the scenario that M. tuberculosis probably derived from an ancestral progenitor strain. The environmental influence of this evolutionary scenario deserves continuing intense evaluation.