The oldest DNA evidence of leprosy in the British Isles has been identified in the remains of a teenager from a late Viking-age grave in Orkney.
Michael Taylor and colleagues at Imperial College, London, and the Natural History Museum recovered samples from bones excavated from a Norse Christian cemetery at Newark Bay.
The scientists were able to match fragments of DNA from the gnarled skull of the youth with identical sequences of Mycobacterium leprae , the bacterium that is responsible for this infectious disease.
The results are published in the Journal of Archaeological Science .
Taylor said the teenager, who died less than 800 years ago, would have suffered enormously in his final years.
His nasal and other facial bones had been lost. This would have left him with a collapsed face and with great difficulties eating.
Leprosy had been a feared scourge in the Middle Ages. By the 16th century, however, it had largely disappeared in Britain.
Scandinavians were particularly prone to this particular type of leprosy, which is mentioned in the Viking Orkneyinga Saga. Among the medieval victims of leprosy was Robert the Bruce.