Neanderthals had a parasite-filled disease we don’t know much about, scientists say

This disease that has jumped to humans, likely through a similar pathway of small bites, infected millions and nearly wiped out Neanderthals off the face of the Earth.

Scientists say a disease of unknown origin has been discovered in Neanderthals from across Europe. The infections, affecting their fingers and toes, are well-characterized and suggest a similar route from animals to humans could have also damaged their hands and feet.

The disease was previously known only to plague gorillas and chimpanzees in Africa, but it has now been shown to have been spread via ticks to humans from the region known as Middle-East Mesopotamia.

This species lived from around 45,000 to 35,000 years ago, and they’re believed to have had a population about 1,000 times smaller than those of modern humans. Even so, with fewer predators to compete for space and food, and the possibility of better-equipped ancestors than would later make their way out of Africa, the average lifespan for these ancient humans would have been measured in thousands.

Researchers found the condition, which causes the presence of persistent sore spots on the hand and foot, can be a serious problem for people in that era. It can cause symptoms similar to an infection of the leg, but also present in two fingers: one red, tender, and sore like a blister, while the other is a clear, solid red. Foot infections were also found, but the two symptoms were usually not associated.

Numerous parasite species were implicated in the attacks, including the parasites which caused Lyme disease. But further DNA sequencing showed that the diseases identified are in addition to others associated with ticks.

The findings from the study published in the journal Nature began with a straightforward cross comparison of modern humans and Neanderthals with each other. This was not the case a few decades ago, when examining modern humans further could have been fraught with problems because of the many genetic changes made in those who had already been compared.

This study focused on a small swatch of small Neanderthal and modern human genomes. That is one reason the diseases identified are only present in some of the oldest modern humans.

Other researchers outside the study cautioned that the root cause of the diseases was still unknown. “I think this is an interesting illustration of how continuity in the genome – whether in the cases of Neanderthals and modern humans or even in between that – can cause some unexpected mutations,” said John Howell, a professor of human evolutionary genetics at Trinity College Dublin, who was not involved in the research.

Dr. Howell said he hoped the finding would lead to more research on the disease to better understand its origins, but would likely point to a common pathway that humans and their ancestors across the world could have followed.

It would also open up a new question: Has this kind of disease survived on to humans today?

Read the full story at The Guardian.


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