Earliest malaria DNA found in Roman baby graveyard

Malaria experts are helping archaeologists to work out what caused the deaths of 47 babies whose bodies have been unearthed together in a fifth-century cemetery outside Rome.

Baby burial: the skeleton of one of the proposed malaria victims unearthed in the Roman cemetery. Credit: ALISON ABBOTT

The experts think the tiny skeletons — including the bones of 22 miscarried fetuses — may have been victims of Plasmodium falciparum, an extremely virulent form of the organism that causes malaria. The Roman site could mark the northern edge of P. falciparum's penetration into Europe.

The archaeologists who excavated the site, led by David Soren of the University of Arizona in Tuscon, are intrigued by its unusual configuration. The cemetery, at Lugnano, Umbria, was created in a ruined villa. The bones were found at different depths, with more at higher levels.

"This is not the normal burial pattern for a Roman cemetery," says Soren. There were also signs of witchcraft at the burial site, including puppy skeletons, perhaps meant to ward off demons thought to cause disease. Study of the soil between the remains indicates that all the babies were buried within a few weeks.

Medics suggest a malaria epidemic as the cause of the deaths. The honeycomb pattern of many of the bones suggests anaemia, a symptom of malaria, and severe malaria is implied in the era's literature.

"Malaria is the most logical explanation for the deaths," says Mario Coluzzi, a parasitologist at the University of Rome.

DNA studies, due to be published next month in Ancient Biomolecules, show the presence of P. falciparum DNA in the bones of the oldest infant — the earliest malaria DNA ever identified.

"This is by no means proof that the cause of the infants' death was malaria," says Robert Sallares of the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology, UK, who led the DNA study, "but it allows it to remain a contender."

http://www.coh.arizona.edu/lugnano

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Abbott, A. Earliest malaria DNA found in Roman baby graveyard. Nature 412, 847 (2001). https://doi.org/10.1038/35091226

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