When British archaeologist Kathleen Kenyon excavated Jericho in the 1950s, her team recovered thousands of human bones, some of which date as far back as the Neolithic period (8300–4500 B.C.). Abandoned decades ago in storage at the University of Sydney’s Nicholson Museum, the bones are now the focus of new research about contagious disease.
The drawn-out nature of some bacterial diseases such as tuberculosis (TB) leave telltale lesions on the bones of their victims. This makes it possible for scientists to identify the remains of sick people throughout centuries and millennia of history. Some of the bones from Jericho, which are up to 8,000 years old, show that some of the city’s inhabitants suffered from TB.
Jericho is one of the earliest cities in the world, dating as far back as 10,000 B.C. Although the exact origins of TB are unknown, experts believe it developed around the same time and place. Tuberculosis is considered a “civilized” disease because it is spread by coughing and depends on the close living conditions of cities and towns to thrive. The relatively booming metropolis of ancient Jericho provided the ideal TB breeding ground.
Today’s TB isn’t the same as its Bronze Age bacterial ancestor, however. Diseases mutate and evolve over time, which can make them difficult to treat; some strains are resistant to modern medicine. By collecting the bone remains of TB patients over the millennia, scientists can study how the bacteria changed and adapted to different situations. The goal is to use this information to predict future changes and develop effective medical defenses against their spread. Thus may some of our most ancient human ancestors be able to protect the health of future generations.—D.D.R.