Raw meat led to ancient animal-to-human disease spillover

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Hacking up raw meat ended so poorly for this Neanderthal that it’s significant to humanity’s evolutionary history.

Scientists have confirmed one of the earliest known instances of a disease jumping from an animal to a human, an event formally known as “spillover.” HIV and COVID-19 are also both examples of spillover disease.

The fossilized bones of a Neanderthal man have revealed “the earliest secure evidence” of an animal infecting a person with a “zoonotic disease,” according to a study published last month.

The man, known as the “Old Man of La Chapelle,” was discovered in a cave near the French village of La Chapelle-aux-Saints in 1908, CNN reported. His remains have proven a goldmine to researchers over the decades, and his bones continue to reveal new information. 

The first ever near-complete Neanderthal skeleton to be found, he is believed to have passed away approximately 50,000 years ago, either in his 60s or late 50s. While a 2019 study put forth evidence that he’d had advanced osteoarthritis in his hip and spine at the time of his death, the new research shows that in fact he was suffering from a disease passed on to him from an animal, likely while he was either cooking or butchering raw meat.

neanderthal disease spillover study
The new findings confirm one of the oldest instances of a disease jumping from an animal to a human.
De Agostini via Getty Images

“Rather, we found that some of these pathological changes must be due to inflammatory processes,” the head of the University of Zurich’s Evolutionary Morphology and Adaptation Group and internal medicine specialist Dr. Martin Haeusler told CNN. “A comparison of the entire pattern of the pathological changes found in the La Chapelle-aux-Saints skeleton with many different diseases led us then to the diagnosis of brucellosis.”

Today, brucellosis is a widespread disease, generally contracted via contaminated animal products (including unpasteurized milk), airborne agents or direct contact with an infected animal.

More recent, 5,000-year-old human skeletons have also shown evidence of the disease, but the Old Man of La Chapelle represents, for now, the oldest known case of it.

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