Archaeology Magazine Archive

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Dark History of the White Death Volume 62 Number 5, September/October 2009
by Lois Wingerson

The million-year battle between man and tuberculosis

[image] Posters have been used to fight the scourge of TB for nearly a century. A federal Work Projects Administration poster from the 1930s warns against transmission to children. (Work Projects Administration Poster Collection-Library of Congress)

Perhaps the 25-year-old woman did not die cuddling her infant, but the two seemed to have been buried that way. The baby, small for its age, was probably never healthy during its year of life. Perhaps it caught the mother's illness and spent much of that year wracked with coughs. Soon after they were interred, the village was abandoned, then inundated by the Mediterranean Sea. Their grave was encased in clay and covered by thick sand and saltwater, protecting the bones for nine millennia. In 1990, anthropologist Israel Hershkovitz and his Tel Aviv University colleagues began to excavate the Neolithic site, called Atlit-Yam, off the coast near Haifa. They uncovered houses, hearths, workshops--signs of a thriving settlement. They brought up stone and bone tools and ornaments, and found evidence of grain storage, as well as bones of fish and domestic animals bearing signs of butchery. They also found human remains, including those of the mother and child, some with signs of disease. The woman's femur showed a bony overgrowth and there were serpentine grooves on the inner surface of the infant's skull. Both can be signatures of a killer: tuberculosis. The discovery at Atlit-Yam is just one of several finds that are helping archaeologists and geneticists rewrite the history of TB. Once thought to be a recent affliction, tuberculosis is now known to have had a relationship with humans that reaches back more than two million years. Understanding that relationship may be critical, given the rise of TB bacteria that can resist today's most powerful antibiotics.

Lois Wingerson is content manager for, a search engine for doctors, and author of Mapping Our Genes and articles in publications including Discover, The Economist, and The New York Times.