Leprosy at the edge of Europe—Biomolecular, isotopic and osteoarchaeological findings from medieval Ireland
By G. Michael Taylor , Eileen M. Murphy, Tom A. Mendum, Alistair W. G. Pike, Bethan Linscott, Huihai Wu, Justin O’Grady, Hollian Richardson, Edmond O’Donovan, Carmelita Troy, Graham R. Stewart
PloS ONE, Vol.13:12 (2018)
Abstract: Relatively little is known of leprosy in Medieval Ireland; as an island located at the far west of Europe it has the potential to provide interesting insights in relation to the historical epidemiology of the disease. To this end the study focuses on five cases of probable leprosy identified in human skeletal remains excavated from inhumation burials. Three of the individuals derived from the cemetery of St Michael Le Pole, Golden Lane, Dublin, while single examples were also identified from Ardreigh, Co. Kildare, and St Patrick’s Church, Armoy, Co. Antrim. The individuals were radiocarbon dated and examined biomolecularly for evidence of either of the causative pathogens, M. leprae or M. lepromatosis.
Oxygen and strontium isotopes were measured in tooth enamel and rib samples to determine where the individuals had spent their formative years and to ascertain if they had undertaken any recent migrations. We detected M. leprae DNA in the three Golden Lane cases but not in the probable cases from either Ardreigh Co. Kildare or Armoy, Co. Antrim. M. lepromatosis was not detected in any of the burals. DNA preservation was sufficiently robust to allow genotyping of M. leprae strains in two of the Golden Lane burials, SkCXCV (12-13th century) and SkCCXXX (11-13th century). These strains were found to belong on different lineages of the M. leprae phylogenetic tree, namely branches 3 and 2 respectively.
Whole genome sequencing was also attempted on these two isolates with a view to gaining further information but poor genome coverage precluded phylogenetic analysis. Data from the biomolecular study was combined with osteological, isotopic and radiocarbon dating to provide a comprehensive and multidisciplinary study of the Irish cases. Strontium and oxygen isotopic analysis indicate that two of the individuals from Golden Lane (SkCXLVIII (10-11th century) and SkCXCV) were of Scandinavian origin, while SkCCXXX may have spent his childhood in the north of Ireland or central Britain.
We propose that the Vikings were responsible for introducing leprosy to Ireland. This work adds to our knowledge of the likely origins of leprosy in Medieval Ireland and will hopefully stimulate further research into the history and spread of this ancient disease across the world.