Britain’s earliest known case of tuberculosis exists in a man who died in his mid-30s around 2,200 years ago and fresh analysis has revealed more about his life.
The so-called Tarrant Hinton Man was first discovered during excavations in Dorset that started in 1967 and lasted for 18 years.
DNA studies in 2002 confirmed his TB diagnosis and new research, funded by a grant from South West Museum Development, reveals he may have died in England, but was born elsewhere in Europe, either in Ireland, France or Spain.
While TB was not prevalent in the British Isles until the first century AD, it is believed the disease was prominent elsewhere on the continent for thousands of years.
Experts believe the man moved to England as an eight-year-old child and may have already been infected with TB bringing it to Britain.
Pictured, the skeleton of an Iron Age man with signs of tuberculosis in his lower spine at the Museum of East Dorset. To the right of the skeleton is a replica of the same part of the spine of a healthy person. The man would have needed to use a stick or crutch. His Iron Age community must have cared for him, despite his illness, or he would not have survived for so long
The skeleton is permanent displayed at the Museum of East Dorset in Wimborne and isotope analysis was done on the bones to determine the origin of the individual.
This specific form of study looks at the concentration of specific variations of elements hidden in the bones and teeth.
Some are more common in specific regions than others, allowing researchers to narrow down where an ancient person lived.
His wisdom teeth, which grew between the ages of eight and 14, reveal the Tarrant Hinton Man was living on the southern British chalklands at this time.
TB is a destructive disease which can cause the bones of the spine to collapse. The changes caused by TB in the vertebrae would have resulted in approximately 60˚ kyphosis (curvature of the spine)
The results of the isotope analysis confirm that the Iron Age man came from outside Britain, from an area of Carboniferous Limestone. This type of rock is found in south or west Ireland, on the Atlantic coasts of southwest France and in the Cantabrian Mountains of Northern Spain (red areas)
But other teeth which had been present for much longer indicate he grew up in an area rich in Carboniferous Limestone.
This is common in South or West Ireland, on the Atlantic coasts of South West France and in the Cantabrian Mountains of Northern Spain.
Dr Simon Mays, Human Skeletal Biologist for Historic England said: ‘The isotope evidence is tantalising. Perhaps he caught his disease in mainland Europe.
The facemask that can spot tuberculosis
A facemask being tested by the NHS can diagnose tuberculosis early.
The gadget, designed with the help of British scientists, can detect disease bacteria expelled by a suspected patient’s mouth after they wear it for just half an hour.
Researchers say the ‘world-changing’ technology could save millions of lives a year by giving a rapid diagnosis.
In a study of tuberculosis (TB) patients, the mask correctly identified the life-threatening disease 86 per cent of the time.
This compared with 20 per cent from a typical diagnostic tool which involves taking a sample of phlegm from inside the lungs, which is not always reliable.
The mask is now being trialled at an NHS TB service in Leicester, and is expected to save thousands of pounds in cost if it is rolled out nationwide.
TB is one of the top ten leading causes of death globally, killing a total of 1.5million in 2018. Some 6,000 in the UK fall ill with TB every year.
‘But it could equally well be that TB was already well-established here by the Iron Age – it does not often show on the bones and we do not have very many skeletons from this period.’
Professor Alistair Pike of the University of Southampton who led the research, says: ‘The recent global Coronavirus pandemic has shown how the long-distance movement of people can rapidly spread disease and this will have been no different in the past.
‘By using isotopes to trace prehistoric people’s origins we hope to determine when, where and how far the diseases of the time were spreading.’
Other findings of the study reveal his diet was rich in plants, cattle and sheep but lacked fish and pig.
Previous DNA analysis revealed he caught TB from another person rather than from infected meat or milk.
James Webb, Acting Director of the Museum of East Dorset, said: ‘We know that the Iron Age man lived in a small farming settlement and was aged between 30 and 40 years old when he died.
‘He had advanced tuberculosis in his spine (also known as Pott’s disease) so he must have been in considerable pain.
‘The changes in his spine would have taken several years to develop. His mobility and daily functioning would have been impaired.
‘The indication is that his community must have cared for him, despite his illness, for him to have survived so long.
‘The results shed more light on Iron Age society. They also show that local people had access to the Atlantic sea routes which linked the coastal communities of Europe.
‘The knowledge gained will help the Museum of East Dorset to develop new education sessions and resources around the Iron Age skeleton which is now on permanent display following the museum re-opening in October.’
The Iron Age TB skeleton displayed in the new Life and Death Gallery at the Museum of East Dorset in Wimborne, Dorset. where it is on permanent display
WHAT DO WE KNOW ABOUT IRON AGE BRITAIN?
The Iron Age in Britain started as the Bronze Age finished.
It started around 800BC and finished in 43AD when the Romans invaded.
As suggested by the name, this period saw large scale changes thanks to the introduction of iron working technology.
During this period the population of Britain probably exceeded one million.
This was made possible by new forms of farming, such as the introduction of new varieties of barley and wheat.
The invention of the iron-tipped plough made cultivating crops in heavy clay soils possible for the first time.
Some of the major advances during included the introduction of the potter’s wheel, the lathe (used for woodworking) and rotary quern for grinding grain.
There are nearly 3,000 Iron Age hill forts in the UK. Some were used as permanent settlements, others were used as sites for gatherings, trade and religious activities.
At the time most people were living in small farmsteads with extended families.
The standard house was a roundhouse, made of timber or stone with a thatch or turf roof.
Burial practices were varied but it seems most people were disposed of by ‘excarnation’ – meaning they were left deliberately exposed.
There are also some bog bodies preserved from this period, which show evidence of violent deaths in the form of ritual and sacrificial killing.
Towards the end of this period there was increasing Roman influence from the western Mediterranean and southern France.
It seems that before the Roman conquest of England in 43AD they had already established connections with lots of tribes and could have exerted a degree of political influence.
After 43AD all of Wales and England below Hadrian’s Wall became part of the Roman empire, while Iron Age life in Scotland and Ireland continued for longer.