The 82nd Annual Meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists (2013)

Investigating the emergence of tuberculosis in South Africa


1Department of Archaeology, University of Cape Town, 2School of Human Evolution and Social Change, Arizona State University

Thursday 10:30-10:45, 200ABC Add to calendar

Tuberculosis is the leading cause of death in South Africa and while the disease is clearly very relevant socially and medically, little has been done to understand its emergence locally. Indeed, with the exception of Egypt, the archaeological record of this disease on the continent has not been well evaluated. Here we report results of a study aimed at tracing the geographical and temporal emergence of tuberculosis in South Africa through the written and skeletal records, supplemented by aDNA detection and analysis. Descriptions and demographic information (e.g. preservation, age-at-death, sex, burial location, date, skeletal pathology) were collected for the majority of South African Holocene and historical specimens in museum collections (n=2906). Within this extensive sample, only thirteen skeletal specimens showing pathology suggestive of tuberculosis were identified. All of these specimens date to the Colonial period. Most specimens (n=8) were unearthed from the Northern Cape Province. This concentration of specimens supports reports in the literature of an early disease focus associated with the discovery of minerals in this region. One specimen from the North West Province dates to the late 1700s, suggesting an earlier spread of the disease to the region than is acknowledged in the literature, at a time and place of limited contact between indigenous populations and those of European descent. Ancient DNA analysis was performed on nine samples. Human nuclear and mitochondrial DNA were consistently obtained from four of these specimens; however, initial attempts to recover Mycobacterium tuberculosis complex DNA were unsuccessful.

This study was funded by the Wenner-Gren Foundation Wadsworth African Fellowship.

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