Eight hundred years ago, in a hardscrabble farming community on the outskirts of what was once one of the fabled cities of the ancient world, Troy, a 30-year-old woman was laid to rest in a stone-lined grave.
Like others in the Byzantine era graveyard, the woman's bones bore the unmistakable signs of a hard agrarian existence. But something else caught the attention of Henrike Kiesewetter, an archaeologist affiliated with Project Troia at Tüebingen University, as she curated the skeleton: two calcified nodules, each the size of a strawberry, nestled at the base of the chest, just below the ribs.
“The preliminary thought was that these were tubercles arising from tuberculosis,” says Caitlin Pepperell, a University of Wisconsin-Madison expert on the evolution of pathogens and a professor of medicine and medical microbiology. A bacterial infection, tuberculosis is characterized, often, by the growth of calcified nodules in the lungs or other tissues. DNA, elemental and microscopic analysis of the round white stones, however, ruled out tuberculosis as well as urinary or kidney stones as possibilities.
Caitlin Pepperell. (University of Wisconsin)
Cracking open the nodules, researchers discovered extraordinarily well preserved microfossils, mineralized 'ghost cells,' that closely resembled bacteria from the genus Staphylococcus, a family that includes the highly pathogenic species S. aureus.
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