Old bones. Mays and Taylor examine remains of oldest British TB victim.

Tuberculosis in U.K. Not Romans' Fault

Britons have long blamed the Roman Empire for bringing tuberculosis to their isle in the first century A.D. But researchers have now found traces of the disease on a skeleton that dates to more than 300 years before the arrival of Rome's conquering armies.

Tuberculosis is primarily a disease of the lungs, but it can also cause other damage, including crippling abscesses in the spine. Researchers had found TB scars on at least 10 skeletons in the United Kingdom that dated back to the Roman period, suggesting that the earliest imperial invaders brought the disease.

Now, another skeleton exonerates the Romans, says archaeologist Simon Mays of English Heritage, a government conservation agency in Portsmouth. Mays first noticed the skeleton's deformed vertebrae while analyzing it during the 1980s at a museum in the sleepy village of Tarrant Hinton, near England's southwest coast. However, he didn't realize the significance of the TB scars until the remains were carbon-dated to pre-Roman times in 2001. Then Mays, along with molecular biologist G. Michael Taylor of Imperial College in London, confirmed that the scars were signs of TB by identifying traces of gene sequences from Mycobacterium tuberculosis in the 2300-year-old remains. The discovery, slated for publication in the International Journal of Osteoarchaeology, suggests that "even in a remote rural settlement, the disease was here centuries before the Roman conquest," says Mays.

The history of TB goes back even further. Signs of the disease have been found in 6000-year-old human remains in Italy and Egypt. But paleopathologist Charlotte Roberts of the University of Durham, U.K., says that finding the disease in Iron Age Britain is a "stunning revelation."

Related sites
English Heritage
Background on TB