Smallpox and Malaria findings featured in the current issue of World Archaeology

CWA Issue 81Recent work by the McMaster University Ancient DNA Centre and collaborators on the sequencing of a smallpox genome from a 17th century Lithuanian child mummy and the identification of malaria in Roman Italy has been featured in the current issue of World Archaeology (CWA 81). The issue is already available in the UK and will be available in North America by the end of the month.


Click the image below to see more information about this issue of World Archaeology and see the other interesting stories inside.


17th Century Variola Virus Reveals the Recent History of Smallpox


Dr. Ana Duggan examines a piece of mummified tissue.

The partially mummified remains of a young child have offered a unique insight into the history of a once-feared disease. The remains, recovered from the crypt of the Dominican Church of the Holy Spirit in Vilnius, Lithuania, have been dated to the mid-17th century. Despite no visual sign of disease, the mummy yielded a complete genome for variola (major) virus, indicating the presence of a smallpox infection. This 17th century variola strain was found to be ancestral to all known 20th century strains (dating from approximately the end of WWII to the time of smallpox eradication in the late 1970s) which suggests that smallpox is a much more recent infection in humans than previously presumed. Additionally, a reconstruction of the evolutionary history of variola virus hints that the split between the more virulent variola major and the less virulent variola minor forms may have occurred in response to evolutionary pressure by the advent of vaccination in 1796.
Article Title: 17th Century Variola Virus Reveals the Recent History of Smallpox

Authors: Ana T. Duggan, Maria F. Perdomo, Dario Piombino-Mascali, Stephanie Marciniak, Debi Poinar, Matthew V. Emery,  Jan P. Buchmann, Sebastian Duchêne, Rimantas Jankauskas, Margaret Humphreys, G. Brian Golding, John Southon, Alison Devault, Jean-Marie Rouillard, Jason W. Sahl, Olivier Dutour, Klaus Hedman, Antti Sajantila, Geoffrey L. Smith, Edward C. Holmes, and Hendrik N. Poinar

Curr. Biol., Vol. 26, Dec. 2016, DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2016.10.061


Smallpox holds a unique position in the history of medicine. It was the first disease for which a vaccine was developed and remains the only human disease eradicated by vaccination. Although there have been claims of smallpox in Egypt, India, and China dating back millennia, the timescale of emergence of the causative agent, variola virus (VARV), and how it evolved in the context of increasingly widespread immunization, have proven controversial . In particular, some molecular-clock-based studies have suggested that key events in VARV evolution only occurred during the last two centuries and hence in apparent conflict with anecdotal historical reports, although it is difficult to distinguish smallpox from other pustular rashes by description alone. To address these issues, we captured, sequenced, and reconstructed a draft genome of an ancient strain of VARV, sampled from a Lithuanian child mummy dating between 1643 and 1665 and close to the time of several documented European epidemics. When compared to vaccinia virus, this archival strain contained the same pattern of gene degradation as 20th century VARVs, indicating that such loss of gene function had occurred before ca. 1650. Strikingly, the mummy sequence fell basal to all currently sequenced strains of VARV on phylogenetic trees. Molecular-clock analyses revealed a strong clock-like structure and that the timescale of smallpox evolution is more recent than often supposed, with the diversification of major viral lineages only occurring within the 18th and 19th centuries, concomitant with the development of modern vaccination.

Link to Current Biology Article

Surrounding Press Stories:

Link to CNN Article
Link to ScienceNews Article
Link to Science Magazine Article
Link to National Geographic Article
Link to NPR Article
Link to GenomeWeb Article
NPR All Things Considered Interview


Crypt of the Dominican Church of the Holy Spirit (Vilnius, Lithuania).


One of the mummies found within the crypt, not examined in this study.


McMaster Ancient DNA Centre on Global News The Morning Show

Katherine Eaton and Matthew Emery recently discussed ancient DNA research, de-extinction, and the possible implications and consequences of some of the work done by the McMaster Ancient DNA Centre.

Link to Full Interview

McMaster Art of Research Competition

Congratulations to Matthew Emery and Debi Poinar for their wins in the inaugural McMaster Art of Research Competition which concluded this past week. Matthew took first place in the International Division with his image “Lights in a Sandstorm” from his recent work in Sudan, and Debi received an award for best overall caption across all divisions for her image “A Life Frozen in Time”. Congratulations to both Matthew and Debi!

Lights in a Sandstorm. Credit: Matthew Emery, 2016

Located off the banks of the Nile’s fourth cataract region in the Republic of Sudan, students celebrate the arrival of new friends and funds. Our archaeological team spent the late months of 2015 raising the necessary monetary funds required to restore light to a school compound in the remote village of Wadi Gaud, conducted over our 2016 field season. Sandstorms, as seen here, are a notorious problem during the day. The most severe sandstorms are capable of reducing visibility to near zero, and with it, the ability to provide a suitable education for the village children. As part of McMaster’s international outreach, this photograph demonstrates our ability to impact communities outside the political rhetoric of sanction and fear. This picture signifies the positive aspects of our humanity, what we can achieve when we work together, and the collective values we share about education the world over.


A Life Frozen In Time. Credit: Debi Poinar, 2013

A picture can also be worth a thousand feelings, provoking visceral emotions. Participating in
the Field School in Medieval Archaeology and Bio-archaeology at Badia Pozzeveri (Lucca, Italy)
with my husband and daughter (Hendrik and Sophie Poinar) as part of McMaster Ancient DNA
Center, we travelled back in time to elucidate the possible cause of death at this monastery’s
burial grounds: Cholera? Plague? Unearthing this particular victim I was overcome by feelings
of a life lived, yet now frozen in time; her delicate finger bones clutching on to her rosary and a
bronze medallion worn gracefully around her neck. Who was she, how did she live her life, how
did she die? We were here to discover the mystery of her death, by searching for ancient
pathogens locked deeply within her remains – bones speaking their archaeological truth through
the alphabet of DNA.

Letter from Maia Lappano

We recently received a letter from Maia, a 4-year girl from nearby Guelph, who wrote to us about her thoughts on bringing back the woolly mammoths. It really made our day and we are pleased to have any small part in encouraging the next generation of scientists. Thank you Maia!


Maia’s envelope, sent along with some beautiful stickers.


Maia’s letter


The typed letter accompanying Maia’s letter.

A young scientist.

A young scientist.

McMaster Daily News Article

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