The skeleton of a medieval leper excavated from one of Britain's earliest known hospitals is shedding light on the genetic origins of the disfiguring disease leprosy, as Stuart McDill reports.
A medieval skeleton helping unravel the mystery of a debilitating disease. These bones - of a pilgrim found in a leprosy cemetery outside Winchester in England - are challenging our understanding of history. SOUNDBITE (English) KATIE TUCKER / OSTEO-ARCHAEOLOGIST, SAYING: "We are starting to understand kind of how leprosy spread. The fact that it's actually stayed pretty constant as a disease, the DNA of leprosy has not really changed over the centuries so it suggests that we have changed in response to it. Because of course leprosy was a major problem in the Middle Ages in Europe and now of course it isn't so it must have been changes within our evolution that actually prevented leprosy still being a massive big problem in Europe, where of course it is still is a huge problem in places like India." Found in a man-shaped grave - buried with some ceremony - the skeleton underwent genotyping, radiocarbon dating and biomolecular analysis. In the grave with him proof he made the pilgrimage to the shrine of Saint James in Spain. The scallop shell the badge of Santiago de Compostella - where he probably contracted his disease. SOUNDBITE (English) DR SIMON ROFFEY / READER IN MEDIEVAL ARCHAEOLOGY / UNIVERSITY OF WINCHESTER, SAYING: "It strongly suggests that in this case pilgrimage may have been a conduit for leprosy. Certainly the individual had early stage leprosy, we don't know whether he died of leprosy but he certainly would have had it, it would have affected his feet, it would have affected his hands and clearly he would have had some skin condition as well related to it. And the second important part of this research is what is a pilgrim doing within a leprosy cemetery? Because if we believe our traditional historians we are told that leprosy sufferers were outcast, the hospitals loomed on the edges of cities. These individuals were treated very much as low status akin to criminals in the medieval period." Leprosy may be one of the oldest diseases known to medical science - but there are still hundreds of thousands of new cases every year. Health workers fear a centuries old stigma may be holding many people back from reporting the now easily curable condition.