The ancient DNA of two Egyptian mummies who died more than 3,500 years ago has provided clear evidence for the earliest known cases of malaria.
According to a report in Discovery News, Pathologist Andreas Nerlich and colleagues at the Academic Teaching Hospital Munchen-Bogenhausen in Munich, Germany, studied 91 bone tissue samples from ancient Egyptian mummies and skeletons dating from 3500 to 500 B.C.
Using special techniques from molecular biology, such as DNA amplification and gene sequencing, the researchers identified ancient DNA for the malaria parasite Plasmodium falciparum in tissues from two mummies.
"We now know for sure that malaria was endemic in ancient Egypt. This was only been speculated on the basis reports by (the 5th century B.C. Greek historian) Herodotus and some very faint evidence from ancient Egyptian papyri," Nerlich told Discovery News.
The capital of Egypt around 1500 B.C., Thebes hosts a huge necropolis, which mostly contains the remains of upper class ancient Egyptians.
"Both infected mummies were adults and had some mild signs of chronic anemia. Unfortunately, no further information is available since they came from 'no name burials'," said Nerlich.
However, the location of their tombs in the necropolis strongly suggests that they were of high class local descent," he added.
The wealth of these people did not provide them with protection against diseases.
In a previous study, Nerlich and colleagues discovered that most people buried at the site died between the ages of 20 and 30.
Caused by four different kinds of parasites belonging to the Plasmodium family - falciparum, malariae, ovale and vivax - malaria is transmitted to humans through a bite from an infected female Anopheles mosquito.
The ancient scourge, which has shaped history by decimating invading armies and making villages in the grip of the fever hard to colonize, still plagues humanity.
Nerlich and colleagues believe that their work in identifying one of the earliest forms of the disease may help develop new treatments.
"We are now hopeful we can identify the 'precursor' of malaria pathogens," he said.
According to anatomist and paleopathologist Frank Ruhli, head of the Swiss Mummy Project at the University of Zurich, the discovery is important because it is "based on reliable molecular detection of pathogen ancient DNA."
"This study adds new insights into the evolutionary prevalence of a disease which still kills millions of people worldwide. It also highlights again the enormous importance of ancient mummy research for modern clinical medicine," Ruhli told Discovery News.