Researchers work featured in N.Y. Times

In the disease-scarred bones of a Homo erectus from Turkey, scientists have found evidence of a peril that human ancestors encountered in their migrations out of Africa: tuberculosis. Paleontologists examining small lesions etched inside the 500,000-year-old skull said this was the earliest known sign of a form of tuberculosis that attacks the meninges, the membranes surrounding the brain. The discovery's importance, scientists say, is the support it gives to the theory that dark-skinned people who migrate out of tropical climates tend to have lower levels of vitamin D, a condition that can adversely affect the immune system as well as the skeleton. The findings are reported in the current issue of The American Journal of Physical Anthropology by a team of American, Turkish and German researchers led by John Kappelman, a geologist and paleontologist at the University of Texas, Austin. Dr. Kappelman said in a telephone interview that the lesions near the base of the cranium were "dead ringers" for bone scars seen in modern specimens as a result of Leptomeningitis tuberculosa, the bacterium that causes a fatal disease of the brain not as common as the one that attacks the lungs. The analysis was made by Michael Schultz, an anatomist at Göttingen University in Germany. Homo erectus is widely believed to be among the first hominids to leave Africa, and Turkey was probably one of their avenues of travel. But the specimen studied by Dr. Kappelman's team was the first early hominid to be found in Turkey. It was uncovered more than two years ago in a travertine quarry near Denizli, in western Turkey. Dr. Kappelman conceded that in the absence of a full skeleton, there might be some dispute that this is a Homo erectus and not some slightly more evolved hominid species. But the skull has erectus characteristics, he said, and appeared to be that of a young male.

The New York Times
Signs of TB in Ancient Skull Support Theory on Vitamin D
(Dec. 18)