27.09.2020

Oldest human virus discovered in Bronze Age bones

Scientists say the extinct strain of hepatitis B – the potentially lethal liver disease that affects millions – has ‘transformed’ their understanding of the virus.

The oldest human virus has been discovered in a 4,500-year old skeleton. British scientists said the ‘truly remarkable’ discovery was on a par with finding the first fossils.

Previously the oldest detected human viruses dated back around 450 years. Scientists took DNA from the skeletons to search for evidence of the Hepatitis B virus

The hepatitis B virus has many mutations that no longer exist – and the information could help us prepare for dangerous new strains, scientists said.

The discovery was made by carrying out DNA sampling on a Bronze Age skeleton in Osterhofen, Germany, as part of a wider study of 300 skeletons from central and western Eurasia, which are between 200 and 7,000 years old.

The hepatitis B skeleton belonged to the ‘Bell Beaker’ culture, so called because of the bell-shaped pottery cups left behind.

The study, published in the journal Nature, said it was not previously known that viruses could become extinct. The hepatitis B virus has many mutations that no longer exist – and the information could help us prepare for dangerous new strains, scientists said.

The study, published in the journal Nature, said it was not previously known that viruses could become extinct.

Joint lead author Barbara Muhlemann, a Cambridge University PhD student, said: ‘People have tried to unravel the history of HBV for decades.

‘This study transforms our understanding of the virus.’

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