Health & Medicine

New DNA Evidence Shows Deadly Malaria Hit The Roman Empire 2,000 Years Ago

Angela Betsaida Laguipo
First Posted: Dec 07, 2016 03:43 AM EST
Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

A team of scientists discovered DNA evidence of malaria in 2,000-year-old human remains from the Roman Empire.

Researchers at the McMaster University found that malaria had existed thousands of years ago at the height of the Roman Empire, shedding light on how the disease evolved and how widespread the parasite was across the globe.

Malaria originated in Africa as previously thought. The first modern case of the disease emerged 136 years ago in Constantine, Algeria. Now, the new study published in the journal Current Biology shows that the parasite existed way before that.

A close inspection of the remains from almost 2,000 years ago has revealed traces of malaria. It hints that a severe form of the disease would have plagued the Roman Empire hard.

According to CNN, with the DNA fragments from the teeth of 58 adults and 10 children buried in three imperial-period Italian cemeteries, the scientists were able to recover the mitochondrial genome to identify the particular malaria species that infected the ancient Romans. Specifically, they found evidence of malaria in the remains of two adults, dating from the period of the Roman Empire.

Indeed, the analysis revealed that it was the malaria parasite, Plasmodium falciparum. It is the same as one that is carried by mosquitoes at the present time.

"What I think is interesting about them is that they're from two different localities suggesting that, you know most people thought, 'oh it must be the port cities if it occurred because it's where you have immigrants coming in and it must be coming from Africa because that's where malaria is endemic today," Hendrik Poinar, lead researcher, said as reported by CBC.

"Again it's one of these situations where we blame immigrants on the arrival of infection, but in this case we find it midland in a rural centre, far away from any coastal centres, along a major route, so it certainly would have had to access to trade coming from either side of the peninsula," he added.

Malaria is a potentially fatal mosquito-borne illness. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), there are 214 million cases of malaria reported in 2015. In the same year, at least 430,000 people died of the disease.

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