Grave of Elite Bronze Age Brothers With Mystery Disease Discovered

The bodies of two Bronze Age brothers have been discovered in an ancient tomb in Israel, and they bear a mysterious disease that has left scientists puzzled.

The bones of the brothers—whose relation was confirmed by DNA analysis—both show signs of developmental abnormalities and extensive bone remodeling, characteristic of a chronic infectious disease. The identity of the disease, however, remains a mystery.

"There is no one infectious disease that seems to fit all of the lesion patterns perfectly," Rachel Kalisher, who led the study, told Newsweek. "Paleopathology is an extremely complex field of study that has to not only study modern clinical manifestations of a disease, but also think about how it could have manifested in the past."

Tel Megiddo
Photo of Tel Megiddo National Park in modern-day Israel. This was the site of the ancient city of Megiddo. javax/Getty

The tomb was found at the site of the ancient city of Megiddo in northern modern-day Israel, known as Tel Megiddo today, and has been dated to around 1550 to 1450 B.C., towards the end of the Bronze Age. Diseases then may have been very different to the ones we see now, and many of the tell-tale signs of certain infections will have worn away over time. Despite this, in their paper published on Wednesday by the journal PLoS One, the researchers have put forward some suggestions.

"We suggest leprosy as one possible explanation, among others, [for the brothers' mystery disease] due to some of the particular morphologies of the bone—namely the erosion of the nasal borders of one brother and remodeling of the other brother's foot bones," Kalisher said. "But we understand that this is not enough evidence [to know for sure], especially because leprosy is not attested elsewhere in this region during this time."

Leprosy, also known as Hansen's disease, is an infectious disease caused by a slow-growing bacterium called Mycobacterium leprae. The disease can affect the nerves, eyes and skin as well as the lining of the nose.

Leprosy was once thought to be a highly contagious disease but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says that it is only transmitted through prolonged, close contact with an infected individual. The disease is known to spread within families, not just because of the requirement for prolonged close contact but also because there is a genetic component to an individual's susceptibility to this infection.

Leprosy bacteria
Illustration of Mycobacterium leprae, the bacterium that causes leprosy. The brothers in the tomb may have been infected by this bacterium, but further analysis is needed. Dr_Microbe/Getty

However, leprosy is notoriously difficult to identify from archeological, fragmented remains—and we do not know for sure that the two brothers actually suffered from the same infection, despite the similarities—so further testing will be required to confirm the identity of the mystery disease.

The arrangement of the tomb suggests that one of the brothers may have died several years before the other, and it is this first brother who appears to have the more severe disease progression. The bones of the brother who died later appear to have been less severely impacted by the infection He has another unusual feature, which may be evidence of an attempt to cure him of this mysterious malady after it had killed his brother.

Brothers buried in tomb
Illustration of the arrangement of the two brothers. The remains of one brother were significantly more intact than the other, who had died several years prior. Kalisher et al./PLoS One

The young man's skull bears a large square hole that appears to have been cut out while he was still alive. Cutting holes in people's skulls—also known as trephination or trepanation—is an ancient surgical procedure that was used for the treatment of all sorts of ailments throughout history.

"The full spectrum of illnesses or circumstances that trephination was used for are unknown," Kalisher said. "Archeologists can only ever speculate based on the other contextual clues of the individual. In our study, we hypothesize that the trephination was meant to be some sort of medical intervention based on the extensiveness of the infectious legions on the individual's remains."

Photo of the second brother's skull with a hole cut into his head. Trephination was uncommon in this area at this time, implying the elite status of the individual. Kalisher et al./PLoS One

Although trephination itself is seen throughout the world over a span of thousands of years, it is fairly unusual to see it in this region at this time. "There are only a handful of trephinations that have been published in the entire region—the Levant—from the Neolithic through Roman Periods, about 7 or 8 millennia," Kalisher said.

For this individual to have had access to such an unusual and high level form of surgery (for the time), the brothers must have been from an elite tier of society. The fact that they were able to survive with a chronic infection prior to this—for long enough for the infection to leave marks on their bones—is also a testament to their prestigious status.

"This study is such a fascinating one because it combines several lines of evidence to create a clearer version of these two individuals' pasts," Kalisher said. "Not only were these individuals elite, but they were brothers buried together in one grave after significant time had passed after the first brother's death. Both had congenital anomalies and acquired illness that reinforce their biological and social connection. And then on top of it all, one had a complex surgical procedure. It's just a really interesting intersection of circumstances that, in my opinion, humanizes the past."

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