Ancient Ailment? Early human may have carried tuberculosis

Check your tile countertop for fossils. A consumptive Homo erectus—or at least a piece of him—might be trapped there.

HOMO TUBERCULOSIS. A stippling of tiny pits (pointer) heralds a rare form of tuberculosis in this plaster cast of a skull fragment from a 500,000-year-old Homo erectus, claims one anthropologist. If true, it would be by far the oldest case of the disease. M. Miller/Univ. of Texas at Austin

While cutting coveted travertine into tiles, a saw operator in Turkey sliced through a fossilized skull and gave the pieces to his supervisor. The fragments from the 500,000-year-old rock sat on a shelf behind the supervisor’s desk until a local geologist visiting the fossil-rich site claimed them.

“The workers didn’t know what it was,” says John Kappelman of the University of Texas at Austin, who studied the fossil. “The first saw cut took off a bit of the top of the [skull] and the second saw cut went through the middle of the eye orbit.”

The partial skull is the first H. erectus fossil found in Turkey, Kappelman and colleagues report online and in an upcoming American Journal of Physical Anthropology.

A wildly successful species that predated modern humans, H. erectus walked out of Africa all the way to China, Indonesia, and the Republic of Georgia starting about 2 million years ago, other fossils show. Whether the tall tool users ever arrived in Europe remains controversial, but the new find suggests they at least got close.

Kappelman says the skull’s heavy brow ridge and sharply sloped forehead mark it as H. erectus.

Moreover, he says the inside of the skull displays telltale signs of tuberculosis, which in rare cases infects the lining of the brain. If confirmed, the find would push back the origin of the disease in hominins—the anthropological term describing human and near-human predecessors—back hundreds of thousands of years.

Until now, the oldest direct evidence of tuberculosis came from a 5,400-year-old Egyptian mummy. In 2005, genetic analysis of several strains suggested the disease originated about 3 million years ago in East Africa, the cradle of early human evolution.

The Turkish travertine traveler physically buttresses the claims of an early origin of the disease, Kappelman says.

When Kappelman initially examined the fossil, he missed the signs of tuberculosis—a stippling of tiny pits around the eye orbit. But when he showed the fossil to paleopathologist Michael Schultz of the Georg-August University in Göttingen, Germany, Schultz recognized the pattern.

It matched what Schultz had seen in the skull of a 19th-century Austrian man who died from tuberculosis of the meninges, the membranes sheathing the brain. When the disease invades this covering, its characteristic tubercles, or grains, press tiny pits into the front of the skull, near the eyes.

“The imagery of that [Austrian] case is an exact match for what we have,” says Kappelman.

The diagnosis arrives millennia too late for the adult male H. erectus, but it’s just in time to set off a scientific controversy.

Two other paleopathologists, Pia Bennike of the University of Copenhagen and George Armelagos of Emory University in Atlanta, are skeptical of the claim. They want to see more of the ancient individual—such as his spine—to confirm that he indeed carried tuberculosis.

Kappelman hopes to find more of the early man in the quarry’s scrap heap. He might make a few trips to Home Depot too. “Back in the tile section, they have travertine from Turkey,” he says. “Honestly, it’s a case where the rest of this thing might be in somebody’s kitchen.”

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