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A Medieval Skeleton’s Surprising Diagnosis: Livestock Disease

A sip of unpasteurized sheep or goat's milk may have spelled doom for a medieval Italian man.

A new genetic analysis of bony nodules found in a 700-year-old skeleton from Italy reveal that the man had brucellosis, a bacterial infection caught from livestock, when he died. It's not clear if the disease killed the man, but he likely would have suffered from symptoms such as chronic fatigue and recurring fevers, according to the researchers who analyzed the bones.

In fact, the disease predates modern humans: In 2009, researchers reported possible signs of brucellosis in a specimen of the human ancestor Australopithecus africanus, who lived more than 2 million years ago.

Road workers stumble over 10,000-year-old find 0:52

Archaeologists found 32 bony nodules scattered in the man's pelvic region, often a sign of tuberculosis. Tuberculosis is the most common culprit in cases of calcified nodules, study leader Mark Pallen, a microbial genomist at Warwick Medical School in England, said in a statement.

Pallen and his colleagues sampled one of the nodules and subjected it to a process called "shotgun metagenomics."

To the researchers' surprise, the man did not have tuberculosis. Instead, the bony nodule held the DNA signature of the bacterium Brucella melitensis, the microbe that causes brucellosis.

Brucellosis can be transmitted from livestock to humans in several ways. One possibility is that the man caught the disease from direct contact with animals — perhaps while slaughtering a sheep or delivering a newborn lamb. Or he could have gotten the disease from drinking unpasteurized milk or eating unpasteurized cheese.

Brucellosis still affects more than 500,000 people around the world yearly, though livestock vaccination and dairy pasteurization have hampered its spread. Today, antibiotics are used to treat people with brucellosis, and no more than 2 percent of infected people die from the disease, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

- Stephanie Pappas, Live Science

This is a condensed version of an article that appeared on Live Science. Read the entire story here. Follow Stephanie Pappas on Twitter and Google+. Follow us @livescience, Facebook & Google+.

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