This week’s PLoS ONE featured image is taken from an article published today by Maria Antonietta Costa of the Universidad Católica del Norte, Chile, and colleagues, in which the researchers describe the discovery in the archaeological cemetery of Coyo Oriente in Northern Chile of four female skulls with visible boney facial lesions. Using PCR-sequenced analyses of bone fragments from the skull, the authors confirmed that the four individuals were infected with leishmaniasis, an infectious disease endemic today in many areas of South America.
The cemetery where the skulls were discovered is in a village in the foothills of the Andes at an altitude of 2,400m but leishmaniasis isn’t usually found in this kind of environment because the altitude and aridity would prevent the protozoan parasites that cause the disease from completing their life cycles. The authors therefore suggest that it is unlikely that leishmaniasis was ever present in the area and that the affected individuals must have migrated there from an endemic area. As all for skulls are from women, the authors posit that the custom for patrilocal marriages (where women from different cultures follow their husbands to the husbands’ native community) may have allowed immigrant women who had been infected with the disease early in life to become integrated in the desert society before they showed signs of the disfiguration caused by the disease.
The authors conclude in the paper: “The present globalization, characterized by cross–border movement of people, commodities, vectors, diseases, food and commerce, has extraordinary potential to influence the spread and emergence of infectious diseases. We record here that such factors were at work millennia ago; they must have shaped demographic trends and the spread of infectious diseases throughout pre-history.”
The featured image is Figure 2 from the article, Ancient Leishmaniasis in a Highland Desert of Northern Chile, which is freely available in full online. The figure shows: “Four female skulls from ancient graves, from Cojo Oriental cemetery, San Pedro de Atcama, Northern Chile. They show extensive, destructive lesions (outlined by broken lines) caused by chronic Leishmania infection.” As ever, you can reuse, redistribute, reprint and modify this image without permission from PLoS or from the authors, as long as the authors and PLoS ONE are attributed.
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