Smallpox spread from person to person via infectious droplets, killing approximately a third of sufferers and leaving another third permanently scarred or blind. Around 300 million people died from smallpox in the 20th century alone before it was officially eradicated in 1980 through a global vaccination effort — the first human disease to be eradicated.
And archaeologists have now sequenced the genomes of newly-discovered strains of the virus after it was extracted from the teeth of Viking skeletons from sites across northern Europe.
We already knew Vikings were moving around Europe and beyond, and we now know they had smallpox
Professor Eske Willerslev
Professor Eske Willerslev, of the University of Cambridge, who led the study, said: “We discovered new strains of smallpox in the teeth of Viking skeletons and found their genetic structure is different to the modern smallpox virus eradicated in the 20th century.
“We already knew Vikings were moving around Europe and beyond, and we now know they had smallpox.
“People travelling around the world quickly spread COVID-19 and it is likely Vikings spread smallpox.
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“Just back then, they travelled by ship rather than by plane.
“The 1,400-year-old genetic information extracted from these skeletons is hugely significant because it teaches us about the evolutionary history of the variola virus that caused smallpox.”
Smallpox was eradicated throughout most of Europe and the US by the beginning of the 20th century but remained endemic throughout Africa, Asia, and South America.
The World Health Organization (WHO) launched an eradication programme in 1967 that included contact tracing and mass communication campaigns — all public health techniques currently used by countries to control today’s coronavirus pandemic.
However, it was only the world-wide roll-out of a vaccine that ultimately enabled scientists to stop smallpox in its tracks.
Historians believe smallpox may have existed since 10,000 BC but until now there was no scientific proof that the virus was present before the 17th century.
Although it is unknown how it first infected humans, like COVID-19, it is believed to have originated from animals.
Professor Martin Sikora, one of the senior authors leading the study, from the University of Copenhagen, said: “The timeline of the emergence of smallpox has always been unclear but by sequencing the earliest-known strain of the killer virus, we have proved for the first time that smallpox existed during the Viking Age.
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“While we don’t know for sure if these strains of smallpox were fatal and caused the death of the Vikings we sampled, they certainly died with smallpox in their bloodstream for us to be able to detect it up to 1400 years later.
“It is also highly probable there were epidemics earlier than our findings that scientists have yet to discover DNA evidence of.”
The researchers discovered smallpox — caused by the variola virus — in 11 Viking-era burial sites in Denmark, Norway, Russia, and the UK.
They also found it in multiple human remains from Öland, an island off the east coast of Sweden with a long history of trade.
The team were able to reconstruct near-complete variola virus genomes for four of the samples.
Dr Lasse Vinner, one of the first authors and a virologist from The Lundbeck Foundation GeoGenetics Centre, added: “Understanding the genetic structure of this virus will potentially help virologists understand the evolution of this and other viruses and add to the bank of knowledge that helps scientists fight emerging viral diseases.
“The early version of smallpox was genetically closer in the pox family tree to animal poxviruses such as camelpox and taterapox, from gerbils.
“It does not exactly resemble modern smallpox which show that virus evolved.
“We don’t know how the disease manifested itself in the Viking Age — it may have been different from those of the virulent modern strain which killed and disfigured hundreds of millions.”
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