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Ancient Tuberculosis in the Americas


Tuberculosis has afflicted human populations for millennia, and remains a significant cause of morbidity and mortality in many parts of the world today. The evolutionary history of the disease, however, remains obscure, especially in the Western Hemisphere. Understanding this history can aid our understanding of the present affliction and help in predicting our co-evolutionary future with this persistent pathogen.

Although the evolutionary history of tuberculosis in the Old World has seldom stirred debate, the situation in the pre-1492 New World is quite different. Theoretical arguments about host-parasite relationships have been used to argue against M. tuberculosis in the ancient New World, yet an abundance of lesions from skeletal and desiccated human remains provide compelling empirical evidence for believing otherwise.

Recent applications of PCR technology as a test for the presence of M. tuberculosis complex genes have isolated insertion sequence IS6110 in South American and North American examples, thus identifying the pathogen responsible for a disease present in Western Hemisphere humans for over a millennium prior to the Columbian encounter. While the identity of an American M. tuberculosis complex appears secure, no aDNA investigation to date has considered subspecific or strain affinity for ancient American tuberculosis and the implications of this finding for alternative theories of disease evolution.

This research addresses the issue of tuberculosis evolution in the Americas through the study of skeletal collections from throughout the Western Hemisphere, including those held at the Smithsonian Institutionís National Museum of Natural History (NMNH). Collaborative laboratory studies are based at the aDNA laboratory at the University of New Mexico and the Materials Science Centerís Laboratory of Analytical Biology (NMNH).

Research Team
  • Dr. Jane E. Buikstra
  • Dr. Anne C. Stone
  • Dr. Alicia K. Wilbur
  • Amy W. Farnbach
  • Dr. Noreen Tuross
  • Silvia Smith

Sources of Funding
Smithsonian Institution, George E. Burch Fellowship in Theoretical Medicine ($100,000)

Harvard University
Smithsonian Institution

Buikstra JE, Wilbur AK. 2005. Tuberculosis in the Ancient Americas. Presentation at the 1st Paleopathology Association Meeting in South America, Rio de Janeiro Brazil, August 2005.

Wilbur AK, Farnbach AW. 2005. Sensitivity of PCR Assays for Detection of Mycobacterium tuberculosis: Implications for Ancient Disease Studies. 32nd Annual North American Meeting of the Paleopathology Association, Milwaukee WI, April 2005.

Contact: Jane E. Buikstra