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Pathogens in Otzi, the Iceman, Similar to Modern Human, Say Surprised Scientists

Remember the Copper Age man Otzi, found in a mummified form in a glacier in 1991 and becoming a key study point for scientists around the world? Now scientists found pathogens in his stomach with Helicobacter pylori bacterium, which is present even to this day in humans.

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A PICTURE OF THE ICEMAN (RECONSTRUCTION BY ADRIE AND ALFONS KENNIS) CREDIT: RECONSTRUCTION BY KENNIS © SOUTH TYROL MUSEUM OF ARCHAEOLOGY, FOTO OCHSENREITER

A global team of scientists working with paleopathologist Albert Zink and microbiologist Frank Maixner from the European Academy (EURAC) in Bozen/Bolzano completed the genome of the bacterium and reiterated the theory that humans were infected with this stomach bacterium since the beginning of their history.

“We thought it was extremely unlikely that we would find anything because Ötzi’s stomach mucosa is no longer there,” said Zink, who led the study with colleagues from the Universities of Kiel, Vienna and Venda in South Africa as well as the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Jena.

“We had assumed that we would find the same strain of Helicobacter in Ötzi as is found in Europeans today,” explained the computational biologist Thomas Rattei from the University of Vienna. “It turned out to be a strain that is mainly observed in Central and South Asia today.”

Since bacteria are usually transmitted within the family, the history of the world’s population is closely linked to the history of bacteria. Up till now, it had been assumed that Neolithic humans were already carrying this European strain by the time they stopped their nomadic life and took up agriculture. Research on Ötzi, however, demonstrates that this was not the case.

“The recombination of the two types of Helicobacter may have only occurred at some point after Ötzi’s era, and this shows that the history of settlements in Europe is much more complex than previously assumed,” says Maixner.

Further studies will be needed to show to what extent these bacteria living inside the human body can help us understand how humans developed. The results of the study have been published in Science magazine.

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