Friday, September 25, 2015

8000 B.C. Tuberculosis spreads across the world

The 18-year-old Egyptian prince sat on the edge of the bed.  He was fiercely coughing, often bringing up blood which he spat on the ground.  The physician stood alongside him, gently touching the young man's shoulder, chanting an incantation.

He was concerned for his good friend who's skin was drawn taught over his ribs. He seemed to be slowly wasting away.  What the physician offered was the only known remedy for such a condition 2,400 years before the Birth of Christ. Yet his remedy didn't work, and the young prince was mummified.

The disease the prince was infected with was pulmonary tuberculosis.  The pathogen responsible for his death was mycobacterium tuberculosis, although this wouldn't be discovered for another 4,200 years.  The genus has been around since the beginning of time, although it has evolved during that time too.

Thomas M. Daniel, in his 200 book on the disease, said:
Most of its members are water or soil organisms and are not pathogenic for humans. It is possible that such disease causing tubercle bacilli evolved from such saprophytes.  There is reason to believe that M. ulcerans, which causes cutaneous and subcutaneous of people in tropical regions, originated at least 150 years ago on the primitive continent of Goldwanaland.  M. tuberculosis has a nucleotide diversity that is more limited and a frequency of mutation that is lower than those of most other bacteria.  Based on these facts, M. tuberculosis has been estimated to have differentiated as a modern species between 20,400 and 15,300 years ago.  A number of authorities have proposed that M. tuberculosis evolved from M. bovis, the bovine (a species of animals that includes the cow, ox, bull, buffalo, and cattle) organism jumping to humans and mutating to become virulent at the time of the domestication of cattle about 9,000 to 7,000 years ago.  However, this hypothesis is difficult to support in the face of incontrovertible evidence that tuberculosis reached the Americas as primary human pathogen before animals were separately domesticated in Asia Minor and South America. (13, pages 26-27)
Paleopathologists (scientists who study ancient diseases) have discovered human remains dating back to 5,000 or 8000 B.C. that have been discovered to have evidence of tuberculosis spondylitis, a form of the disease that leaves easily recognizable scars on the bones. This form of tuberculosis, or when the disease attacks and scars the spinal vertebrae, would later be referred to as potts disease. When it attacks the lungs it was later called phthisis, which is Greek for chronic wasting away. (9)(13, pages 27-28)

Daniel said that paleopathologists have found evidence from enough mummies around 3,000 B.C. have to speculate a "substantial epidemic of tuberculosis in this early civilization" of ancient Egypt.  It is surmised that it may have lasted "as long as 2,000 years." (13, page 28)

He also said mummification was also practiced in Peru and Chile. He said paleopathologists found evidence of tuberculosis in many of these mummies between 1500 and 500 B.C..  In one mummy of a child, evidence of both phthisis and potts disease were found.  (13, page 28)

He said that skeletal remains found throughout the Americas show evidence at least of potts disease, further evidence that the disease was everywhere. (13, page 28)

The disease is thought to have been "widely dispersed" throughout Europe about 10,000 and 4,000 years ago "as evidenced by skeletal remains with typical bone disease,"  said Daniel.  (13, page 27)  He added:
In fact, by those early times, the disease had become global in its distribution.  It crossed the Bering land bridge to the Americas perhaps as early as 20,000 years ago and certainly no later than about 9,500 years ago when the Bering Strait opened to flood the former land bridge with icy water. (13, page 27)
Daniel said:
It is particularly difficult to envision M. Bovis in the Americas prior to the introduction of cattle to the western hemisphere by early Spanish exporers.(13, page 29)
For this reason, because there was no bovine in the Americas, the only way it could have spread to this hemisphere was by crossing the Bering land bridge. However there are those who dispute this, thus claiming that the disease started from M. Bovine even in the Americas. (13, page 29)

Daniel went on to list possible evidence that tuberculosis was widespread.
  • He said "there are credible descriptions of tuberculosis from India from about 2,500 years ago when a Brahmin prayer exhorted, 'Oh Fever, with thy Brother Consumption, with thy Sister Cough, go to the people below.'"  (13, page 27
  • Chinese writings going back to 4,700 years ago describe a condition that was probably tuberculosis.  An illness described by Chinese physicians "attacked the lungs, causing wasting, cough, and hemoptysis." (13, page 27)
  • The code of Hammurabi, dated about 1772 B.C., has an inscription that has historians thinking it is tuberculosis: "a cure, an evil disease." (13, page 27)

Some believe it's mentioned in the Bible, which was written in the 1000 year period before the conquests of Alexander the Great in 327-6 B.C.  The Bible writers of Leviticus 26:16 and Deuteronomy 28:22 referred to it as shachepeth. (11)(13, page 27)

Moses said (Leviticus 26: 16, Deuteronomy 28: 22):
Then I will do this to you: I will bring upon you sudden terror, wasting diseases and fever that will destroy your sight and drain away your life. You will plant seed in vain, because your enemies will eat it.
Moses said: (Deuteronomy 28:22)
"The LORD will strike you with wasting disease, with fever and inflammation, with scorching heat and drought, with blight and mildew, which will plague you until you perish."
Some believe a wasting disease described in Psalm 106 is tuberculosis.
They yoked themselves to the Baal of Peor and ate sacrifices offered to lifeless gods; they aroused the Lord’s anger by their wicked deeds, and a plague broke out among them. But Phinehas stood up and intervened, and the plague was checked. This was credited to him as righteousness for endless generations to come. By the waters of Meribah they angered the Lord, and trouble came to Moses because of them; for they rebelled against the Spirit of God, and rash words came from Moses’ lips. (psalm 106: 28-33)
It may also have been noted by Isaiah:
The LORD will strike Egypt with a plague; he will strike them and heal them. They will turn to the LORD, and he will respond to their pleas and heal them.  In that day there will be a highwayfrom Egypt to Assyria. The Assyrians will go to Egypt and the Egyptians to Assyria. The Egyptians and Assyrians will worship together. In that day Israel will be the third, along with Egypt and Assyria, a blessing on the earth. The LORD Almighty will bless them, saying, "Blessed be Egypt my people, Assyria my handiwork, and Israel my inheritance." (Isaiah 19: 22-25)
However, its difficult to accurately interpret plagues of the Bible as modern diseases.  Knowledge diseases were scanty back then, and this made it difficult to describe them. Mostly symptoms were listed, which requires the interpreter often to assume what disease is referred to. Likewise, some symptoms in the Bible may be exaggerated for emphasis of what might happen if a person is evil. (11)

What we do know is that an infestation of the disease inside the human body causes specific symptoms, such as a strong, harsh cough that often produces blood (hemoptysis). Because of its attack on the body, the person loses weight, suffers from chills, has night sweats, and becomes extremely fatigued.  While some lived to tell about it, most did not.

Such common symptoms caused by a disease that was so widespread would have been easily recognized by any expert in medicine, from medicine men, priests, priest physicians, and even commoners. How to cure it remained a mystery, and this meant that most who caught the disease were doomed, unless the spirits or gods intervened.

Today paleopathologists (scientists who study ancient diseases) are unable to identify tuberculosis by finding the bacteria because they "disappear" shortly after the victim dies. Yet some types of the disease effect bones and joints leaving scars that can be identified. (8)

And this was how it was determined the young Egyptian prince, along with so many of his fellows, died as the result of a killer beast that would later be known as tuberculosis.
  1. Norris, Charles Camblos, "Gynecological and Obstetrical Tuberculosis," 1921, New York, London
  2. Koehler, Christopher W., "Consumption, the great killer,"
  3. "History of TB," New Jersey Medical School, Global Tuberculosis Institute,
  4. Klebs, Arnold Carl, "Tuberculosis," 1909, New York
  5. Morton, Samuel, "Pulmonary Consumption," 1834, Philadelphia
  6. Flenner, Simon, , "Immunity in Tuberculosis," Annual report of the Smithonian Institution, 1907, New York, page 627 
  7. "Captain of the Men of Death," Ulster Med J. 1989; 58(Suppl): 7–9.
  8. Sigeris, Henry E, "A History of Medicine," volume I, "Primitive and Archaic Medicine," Second Edition, 1955, New York, Oxford University Press, page 53
  9. Seth, Vimlesh, SK Kabra, Rachna Seth, "Essentials of Tuberculosis,"  Third ed., Jaypee Brothers Medical Publishing, 2006, page 3-4
  10. Jones, Greta, "Ca;ptain of All These Men of Death," 2001, New York
  11. Prioreschi, Plinio, "A History of Medicine," 1991, volume I, "Primitive and Ancient Medicine," Edwin Mellen Press, Chapter VII, "biblical Medicine," page 514
  12. Landau, Elaine, "Tuberculosis," 1995, New York, Chicago, London, Sydney, Franklin Watts, pages 13-32
  13. Daniel, Thomas M., "Pioneers in Medicine and their impact on Tuberculosis," 2000, University of Rochester Press
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