Vikings brought LEPROSY to Ireland in the 10th Century as archaeologists find the Scandinavian warriors carried two strains of the disease to the Emerald Isle

Vikings brought LEPROSY to Ireland in the 10th Century as archaeologists find the Scandinavian warriors carried two strains of the disease to the Emerald Isle
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Vikings brought LEPROSY to Ireland in the 10th Century as archaeologists find the Scandinavian warriors carried two strains of the disease to the Emerald Isle

In Ireland, the skeletal remains of five carcasses indicate the leprosy of Vikings brought to the Emerald Isle.

Leprosy is a chronic infectious disease triggered when Mycobacterium leprae attacks the peripheral nerves and affects the mucosal surfaces of the upper respiratory tract, the body, and the eyes, and is also known as Hansen’s disease.

The infected person did not show any symptoms initially, but actually they began to fall apart between five and 20 years later.

How the infectious disease made its way to Ireland has always been a thing of a mystery until a new study by researchers at Queen’s University Belfast and academics in England, found that the disease might have been delivered by the 9th century Scandinavian Vikings.

Vikings carried the flesh-rotting disease leprosy to Ireland in the when they invaded in the 10th century, scientists have discovered. Five cases of leprosy were found in human skeletal remains and chemical analysis was completed on three of the bodies from Dublin. Two of these individuals were from a colder climate, thought to be Scandinavia
Vikings carried the flesh-rotting disease leprosy to Ireland in the when they invaded in the 10th century, scientists have discovered. Five cases of leprosy were found in human skeletal remains and chemical analysis was completed on three of the bodies from Dublin. Two of these individuals were from a colder climate, thought to be Scandinavia.

Leprosy Testing From Five Ancient Hosts

According to Live Science, the earliest case of the ancient disease was found on a 4,000-year-old skeleton in India.

Leprosy is still one of the least understood infectious diseases in the world. In part, this is because the bacteria that cause it (Mycobacterium leprae) is difficult to culture in labs for research, and curiously, apart from humans, only the nine-banded armadillo can host the disease.

Elderly male with leprosy from 1889.
Elderly male with leprosy from 1889.

The Irish Examiner reports that the new research was funded by The British Academy and conducted by Queens University Belfast, University of Surrey, and the University of Southampton.

The researchers studied microbial data from five excavated bodies; three from Dublin, one from Kildare, and one from Antrim, and a number of strains of the ancient leprosy bacterium (M leprae) were identified.

The three individuals studied from Dublin are not native to the city and the paper suggests one may have been from what it is today Britain or from northern Ireland, while tests demonstrated that the other two were native to Scandinavia.

Professor Mike Taylor, a bioarchaeological scientist at the University of Surrey, said: “As past leprosy strains evolved, the genetic fingerprint of an archaeological case of leprosy can tell us about the possible movements of that individual”.

The Leprosy Strain was of Scandinavian and Middle Eastern Origins

This discovery, according to Professor Eileen Murphy, from the School of Natural and Built Environment at Queen’s University, shines new light on the legacy of the Vikings in Ireland.

Furthermore, she says that because Ireland is located in the far west of Europe, relatively little is known of leprosy in medieval Ireland and the study has the potential to provide interesting insights about the historical origin of the disease.

The reason scientists find Ireland of particular interest when creating models of the spread of leprosy is that the island wasn’t absorbed into the Roman world and neither did it undergo the same level of Anglo-Saxon occupation as its neighbors, England and France.

Professor Mike Taylor said this new study reveals that despite being situated on the western extremity of Europe, “Ireland and, certainly, Dublin was not isolated”.

Dr. Taylor wrote in the paper that the two strains of leprosy discovered are “highly similar” to those found in medieval Scandinavians, which increases the likelihood that this was the origin, he said. And while one strain had its origins in Scandinavia, the other is thought to most likely have originated in the Middle East.

Fighting Leprosy Today

You would think that in a civilization that landed on Mars, discovered the quantum realm, and cloned a sheep, ancient diseases like leprosy and the causal Mycobacterium leprae would have been eliminated a long time ago, but this is sadly not the case.

Hansen's disease, closeup of the hands of old man suffering from leprosy.
Hansen’s disease, closeup of the hands of old man suffering from leprosy.

In 1981, the World Health Organization (WHO) published the shocking statistic that there have been “More than 16 million leprosy patients ” over the past 20 years.

They began fighting the disease with “MDT” regimens consisting of the medicines: dapsone, rifampicin, and clofazimine, which kill the pathogen and cures the patient. And, according to the WHO website, based on official figures from 159 countries from the six WHO Regions, “208,619 new cases of leprosy” were registered globally in 2018.


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P. Natasha Covers Classical Archaeology news and has been with Histecho since 2017. She has a Master's degree in MA Archaeology from New York University's Science, Health and Environmental Reporting program. A California native, she also holds a Bachelor of science in molecular biology and a Master of Science in biology from the University of California, San Diego.