First case of TB in Iron Age Britain ‘was immigrant from continental Europe’

By Ben Mitchell, PA
·3-min read

An Iron Age man who was the first known case of tuberculosis in Britain was a migrant from continental Europe, according to new research.

The skeleton of the TB sufferer was discovered during archaeological excavations at Tarrant Hinton, Dorset, which took place between 1967 and 1985.

The spine of the man, who died between 400 and 230 BC, displays signs of TB, making him the earliest case of the disease in the country.

But new chemical analysis of his bones has found that he would have arrived in Britain when he was aged about eight having most likely migrated from south-west France, the Cantabrian mountains of northern Spain or possibly from Ireland.

The study led by Alistair Pike, professor of archaeological sciences at the University of Southampton, examined tooth enamel and bone fragments.

Strontium isotopes showed that the man was living on the southern British chalklands between the ages of eight and 14, when his third molar (wisdom tooth) was developing.

However, the oxygen values for the two earlier molars suggest a non-local origin before the child was weaned on to solid foods.

Combined strontium and oxygen isotope analyses suggested a high probability that the man spent his early childhood in an area of carboniferous limestone to the west of Britain, which is found in France, Spain and Ireland.

Prof Pike said: “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.”

Dr Simon Mays, human skeletal biologist for Historic England, said: “We know from the DNA evidence that this person would have got his TB from another person rather than from infected meat or milk.

“Human-to-human transmission is favoured by crowded city living, but the fact that we find TB at this early date reminds us that the disease could still survive in the rather sparse human populations of the prehistoric past.

“Finds of diseased skeletons in continental Europe tell us that tuberculosis was present there for thousands of years before our Tarrant Hinton man was born.

The spine of the Iron Age man has signs showing he was the first TB sufferer in Britain (University of Southampton/PA)
The spine of the Iron Age man has signs showing he was the first TB sufferer in Britain (University of Southampton/PA)

“The isotope evidence is tantalising. Perhaps he caught his disease in mainland Europe. 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.”

The skeleton is now on permanent display at the newly refurbished Museum of East Dorset in Wimborne, which is currently closed because of Covid-19 restrictions.

James Webb, acting museum director, 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.”