Lugnano (Italie): Solving the riddle of malaria

Shaun Smillie

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A malaria-carrying insect preserved in amber for more than 23 million years found in excavation in the SantiagoRiver basin in the Amazon region; Image by AFP1196759 992715

An ancient Roman cemetery could solve the riddle of one of the oldest and biggest killers in the history of mankind - how malaria spread from Africa to Europe and beyond.

Archaeologists from the University of Arizona have unearthed the skeletons of dozens of infants who died about 1500 years ago after an epidemic swept through an area northwest of Rome. The remains were found on the grounds of a villa near the present-day village of Lugnano, in Teverina.

Though the Roman Empire had converted to Christianity by the time the infants died, such was the panic caused by the many inexplicable deaths that doctors and lay people alike reverted to pagan superstition for explanations and protection.

The skulls of puppies were found at the burial site and archaeologists said this stemmed from the belief that the skulls would draw out a fever when placed on a patient's stomach .

Roof tiles were dumped on top of the graves , suggesting that someone wanted to make sure the dead remained interred.

For the first time scientists have been able to diagnose malaria by looking for the chemical signatures left by the disease in ancient bone marrow.

They believe this technique is more effective than other methods, such as trying to find traces of the malaria pathogen's DNA in bones.

Scientists from Yale University in the US looked for the polymer hemozoin in the bone marrow, which is produced by the parasite that causes malaria.

Jamie Inwood, a Yale University archaeology graduate student who developed the hemozoin method, said that the data yielded by the villa cemetery "will be revolutionary for establishing the epidemiological curve for malaria in ancient societies.

"By understanding how this parasite reacted to societal shifts in the past, we can aid in predicting its behaviour. We can understand the way in which it has evolved."

The World Health Organisation estimated that 584000 people died of malaria in 2013.

Of these deaths, 90% were in Africa, with children under five the most common victims.

Humankind is believed to have had a long relationship with malaria but no one is sure when it began.

Said Inwood: "It has evolved alongside us. These critters are amazing; they change very rapidly [like] a chameleon."

It is possible that malaria jumped species at some point, perhaps from some other primate to man.

After the identification of malarial DNA in the bones of the infants found in the Roman villa, Inwood and her team now want more ancient skeletons to test.

"We have found malaria at 450AD; we want to see if we can push that date back," she said.

The scientists want to examine skeletons from West Africa because malaria might have originated in that region.

But Inwood has not ruled out looking for the disease's origin in Southern Africa, where it has long plagued the population.

Towards the end of May, Inwood will be back at the Roman villa that so many centuries ago was ravaged by disease.