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MSU team identifies ancient disease

January 8, 2012

A disease that continues to effect undeveloped areas worldwide recently was discovered in ancient skeletons by a group of MSU professors and graduate students.

The discovery began in Butrint, Albania, one of the most famous archeology sites in the country, said associate professor of anthropology Todd Fenton, who lead a team of 10 to 12 students on the project.

“Many of the bones were coming from a palace that had gone to ruins,” Fenton said, adding that the site had been conquered several times and was ruined by flooding during medieval times.

Fenton has been taking teams of students to Albania and Italy for about 10 years to analyze skeletons and also collaborated with archeology teams from Britain and Albania during the discovery.

Fenton and his team analyzed skeletons for eight hours a day for three to four weeks, examining the skeletons to check for gender and the estimated age of death, as well as the skeleton’s health.

The team found unusual holes in the vertebrae of the bones, which were then sent to be
tested at MSU by Director of MSU’s Forensic Science Program David Foran and his team.

Former graduate student Michael Mutolo originally tested the bones for tuberculosis because of the look of the lesions on the bones, but the results came out negative. The work then was passed to
graduate student Amanda Buszek, who used a machine named The Pyrosequencer, the only one on campus.

“It allows us to sequence tiny pieces of DNA,” Foran said. “From remains this old, that is all you get. You don’t get big pieces of DNA.”

Buszek’s sequencing proved the remains to be effected by brucellosis on the first try, Foran said.
Brucellosis occurs from animals carrying a bacteria and can be obtained from exposure to cattle with the disease. It is less common now due to stricter cattle policies, he said.

Brucellosis also is found in more underdeveloped areas in the world in current times, including Albania, Buszek said. Most people do not die of the disease any more, as it can be cured with
antibiotics, she said.

The effect of brucellosis on the vertebrae is slow and painful, Fenton said. The infant mortality rate at the site was high, and children were dying at an early age, he said.

This discovery of brucellosis has been the first to be found in ancient remains and illustrates how life in the past was not picturesque, Foran said.

“Being herders, being shepherds, you imagine a really pretty place and a wonderful life they are having,” Foran said. “That was not the case. They were living hard lives.”

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