Among the popular mythologies built up around native American cultures is that they had no disease before Europeans arrived full of pathogens. It's a common narrative in anthropology, it just was never science.
A new study documents that again, finding isolated Mycobacterium pinnipedii from skeletons found in Peru which are at least 1000 years old. The pathogen is a relative of the TB bacterium that affects seals, so it likely that seals carried the pathogens from Africa to the Peruvian coast.
Tuberculosis remains a global threat. New drugs and vaccines are urgently needed to fight this poverty-related disease. Multi-drug resistance against first-line treatments is a growing threat in many countries. Therefore, the exploration of the evolutionary patterns of TB bacteria and their strategies to adapt to the human environment may help predict future patterns of the disease. This may also contribute to future drug discoveries and to the design of improved strategies for disease control.
A new chapter in the history of tuberculosis in Latin America
The results shed new light on the history of tuberculosis in the Americas. It has long claimed that Europeans and Africans introduced the disease to the 'New World' in the aftermath of colonization during the 15th century. "However, there were signs that the disease existed previous to the discovery of the New World. But it is the first time now that the pathogen of pre-Colombian tuberculosis could be identified," says Sebastien Gagneux from the the Swiss Tropical and Public Health Institute. "The link to sea lions was unexpected. Although this strain can make people ill, it is extremely rare and certainly not a common form of a tuberculosis infection in humans today."