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Oldest traces of smallpox virus found in child mummy

Variola DNA in 17th century remains is more direct evidence than earlier mummies’ pockmarks

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12:00pm, December 8, 2016
Mummy in Lithuanian crypt

ANCIENT POX  This mummy was found in a crypt in Lithuania, along with a child mummy that held genetic remnants of variola virus, which causes the pustular rash disease, smallpox.

A child mummy buried in a church crypt in Lithuania could hold the oldest genetic evidence of smallpox.

Traces of the disease-causing variola virus linger in the mummy, which dates to about 1654, evolutionary geneticist Ana Duggan and colleagues report December 8 in Current Biology. Previously, a team of researchers had reported variola DNA in a roughly 300-year-old Siberian mummy.

Some Egyptian mummies, dating back more than 3,000 years, have pockmarks that scientists have interpreted as signs of smallpox, indicating the disease may have tormented humans for millennia. “The definitive feature of smallpox is a pustular rash,” says Duggan of McMaster University in Hamilton, Canada. “But it isn’t easy to say whether a rash comes from smallpox or chicken pox or measles.”

Duggan’s team analyzed skin from the mummy, believed to be a boy who died between

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