Ancient case of disease spillover discovered in Neanderthal man who got sick butchering raw meat

 Scientists studying ancient diseases have discovered one of the earliest examples of spillover, when a disease passes from an animal to a human, and it happened to a Neanderthal man who likely became ill by killing or cooking raw meat.

Researchers were re-examining the fossilized bones of a Neanderthal that was found in a cave near the French town of La Chapelle-aux-Saints in 1908. The “Old Man of La Chapelle”, as he was known, was the first relatively Neanderthal skeleton. full. to be unearthed and is one of the best studied.
More than a century after their discovery, their bones still provide new information about the life of Neanderthals, the large-built Stone Age hominins that lived in Europe and parts of Asia before disappearing around 40,000 years ago.

The man, believed to be in his 50s to 60s when he died about 50,000 years ago, had advanced osteoarthritis in his spine and hip joint, a 2019 study confirmed.

However, during that reanalysis, Dr. Martin Haeusler — a specialist in internal medicine and head of the University of Zurich’s Evolutionary Morphology and Adaptation Group at the Institute of Evolutionary Medicine — realized that not all the changes in the bones could be explained by the wear and tear of osteoarthritis.
“Rather, we found that some of these pathological changes must be due to inflammatory processes,” he said.
“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.”
The study with those findings was published in the journal Scientific Reports last month.

Zoonotic disease

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Brucellosis is a disease that is still widespread today. Humans generally acquire the disease through direct contact with infected animals, by eating or drinking contaminated animal products, or by inhaling airborne agents, according to the World Health Organization. Most cases are caused by unpasteurized milk or cheese from infected goats or sheep.

It’s also one of the most common zoonotic diseases — illnesses that are transmitted from animals to humans. They include viruses like HIV and the coronavirus that caused the Covid-19 pandemic.
Brucella has a wide range of symptoms, including fever, muscular pain and night sweats, Haeusler said. It can last from a few weeks to many months or even years. Long-term problems resulting from the disease are variable but can include arthritis pain, back pain, inflammation of the testes — which can lead to infertility — and inflammation of the heart valves known as endocarditis, which Haeusler said was the most common cause of death from the disease.
The paper said the case was “the earliest secure evidence of this zoonotic disease in hominin evolution.”
The disease has also been found in Bronze Age Homo sapiens skeletons, which date back to around 5,000 years ago.


Brucellosis is found in many wild animals today, and Haeusler said that the Neanderthal man likely caught the disease from butchering or cooking an animal that had been hunted as prey. Possible sources include wild sheep, goats, wild cattle, bison, reindeer, hares and marmots — all of which were components of the Neanderthal diet. However, the paper said that the two large animals Neanderthals hunted, mammoths and woolly rhinoceros, were unlikely to be the disease reservoir — at least based on the animals’ living relatives, in which brucellosis has been largely undetected.
Given the man lived to what must have been a very old age for the period, Haeusler suspected that the Neanderthal may have had a milder version of the disease.
A tiny bone is changing how we think about Neanderthals
A tiny bone is changing the way we think about Neanderthals
The “Old Man of Chapelle” played a major role in misconceptions about Neanderthals as early Stone Age brutes, according to the Smithsonian. More recent research suggests they were just as smart as we are.
An early reconstruction of the skeleton showed the man hunched over, his knees bent and his head tilted forward. It was only later that scientists realized that the skeleton had a deforming type of osteoarthritis and was perhaps not a typical Neanderthal.
Haeusler said the study he published in 2019 showed that even with the wear and tear of degenerative osteoarthritis, “Old Man Chapelle” would have walked upright. The man had also lost most of his teeth and it is possible that other members of his group should have fed him.

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