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10 Oldest Known Diseases


3
Tuberculosis
Mycobacterium tuberculosis is transmitted when infected people cough or sneeze tuberculosis bacteria into the air where others can breathe them.
Mycobacterium tuberculosis is transmitted when infected people cough or sneeze tuberculosis bacteria into the air where others can breathe them.
Ronald W. Smithwick, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services/Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

In 2008, a team of scientists from University College London excavated the submerged ancient city of Alit-Yam, off the coast of Israel. There, they found the buried remains of a mother and her child. Both skeletons showed bone lesions characteristic of tuberculosis [source: Lloyd]. DNA testing confirmed it: Tuberculosis is at least 9,000 years old.

Interestingly, this dig also lent evidence to an ongoing chicken-or-the-egg debate of whether we got TB from cows or they got it from us. In Alit-Yam, human skeletons showed signs of TB, while DNA from animal skeletons didn't [source: Hershkovitz et al.]. So it seems cows are not the killers we once thought.

Other historical speculation has proved equally false: Neither the fossil nor DNA records support the cause of TB as nightly revelry with fairies and the resulting lack of rest, nor is the disease the result of witches who transform the victim into a horse and then ride the victim to nightly meetings, as were once thought [source: Briggs].

While the Alit-Yam finding is the oldest confirmed case of TB, characteristic lesions have been found on bones found in Turkey, dated about 500,000 years ago [source: Lloyd].


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