Researchers were re-examining fossil bones of Neanderthals, found in 1908 in a cave near the French village of La Chapelle-aux-Saints. The “Old Man of La Chapelle”, as he was known, was the first relatively complete Neanderthal skeleton. can be detected and it is one of the best studied.
More than a century after their discovery, their bones are still yielding new information about the life of Neanderthals, the heavily built Stone Age hominins. They lived in parts of Europe and Asia before disappearing about 40,000 years ago.
However, during that reanalysis, Dr. Martin Heusler – specialist in internal medicine and head of the Evolutionary Morphology and Adaptation Group of the University of Zurich at the Institute of Evolutionary Medicine – realized that not all changes in bones could be explained by osteoarthritis. of wear and tear.
“Rather, we found that some of these pathological changes must be due to inflammatory processes,” he said.
“Comparison of the whole pattern of pathological changes found in the skeleton of La Chapelle-aux-Saints with those of several different diseases led us to make a diagnosis of brucellosis.”
It is one of the most common zoonotic diseases – diseases that are transmitted from animals to humans. These include viruses such as HIV and the coronavirus that caused the COVID-19 pandemic.
Heusler said Brucella causes a wide range of symptoms, including fever, muscle aches and night sweats. It can last from a few weeks to several months or even years. The long-term problems caused by the disease are variable, but can include arthritis pain, back pain, inflammation of the testes — which can lead to infertility — and inflammation of the heart valves known as endocarditis, which Heusler said. was the most common reason. death from disease.
The paper said the case was “the earliest secure evidence of this zoonotic disease in hominin evolution.”
The disease has also been found in Bronze Age Homo sapiens skeletons, which date back to about 5,000 years.
Brucellosis is found in many wild animals today, and Heusler postulates that Neanderthal man caught the disease by biting or cooking an animal that was hunted as prey. Possible sources include wild sheep, goats, wild cattle, bison, reindeer, rabbits and marmots – all of which were components of the Neanderthal diet. However, the paper noted that the two large animals Neanderthals hunted, the mammoth and the woolly rhinoceros, were unlikely to be disease reservoirs, at least based on living relatives of the animals in which brucellosis was largely undetected.
Given that the man must have been very old for that period, Heusler suspected that the Neanderthal There may be a milder version of the disease.
An early reconstruction of the skeleton showed the man with a crouched posture, bent knees, and head tilted forward. It was only later that scientists realized that the skeleton had a deformable type of osteoarthritis and was probably not a typical Neanderthal.
Heusler said the study published by him in 2019 showed that, even with the wear and tear from degenerative osteoarthritis, the “Old Man of Chapel” walked upright. The man had also lost most of his teeth and may have been fed by other members of his group.