Ancient Roman Skeleton Reveals Secrets Of Malaria’s Entry To Europe

(Photo by Cesar Von BANCELS / AFP) (Photo by CESAR VON BANCELS/AFP via Getty Images)

Kay Smythe News and Commentary Writer
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A study published Wednesday described how researchers have sequenced a genome of the deadliest form of malaria, found in an ancient Roman skeleton.

The study sought to determine the mitochondrial genome of the most dangerous form of malaria (Plasmodium falciparum) in order to “untangle the history” of its spread throughout Europe, researchers published in the journal Nature.

P. falciparum was eliminated in Europe a half century ago, and genetic data from European parasites — ancient or recent — has been an elusive piece in the puzzle of understanding how humans have moved parasites around the globe,” Harvard genomics researcher Daniel Neafsey told the journal.

Malaria is arguably one of the world’s oldest and most prevalent plagues. Some 150 to 300 million people lost their lives to the deadly disease in the 20th century, according to a study published in the National Library of Medicine. This represented 2 to 5% of all deaths in that century. Humans, from paupers to royals, were killed by the mosquito-borne illness, Nature stated. Malaria causes fever, chills, headaches and a flu-like illness, as well as serious complications if left untreated.

In 2020 alone, there were an estimated 241 million infections globally, killing some 627,000 people, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention stated. (RELATED: CDC Won’t Issue Warning As Leprosy Outbreak Strikes Central Florida)

It’s believed that the five different malaria-causing Plasmodium parasites first arose in Africa anywhere from 50,000 to 60,000 years ago before spreading across the globe, Nature said. But it somehow only reached the shores of Europe around 2,000 years ago, during the time of the Roman Empire, according to the majority of researchers.

Findings from the study suggest P. falciparum spread to Europe from Asia, but the samples are few and far between, so further analysis is required to cement these findings. It’s hoped that this extended research will reveal how our ancient relatives dealt with this disease, and how it may evolve as our species continues to dominate the globe.