Different new diseases continue to surface today, and the answers might be locked away in the genetics of diseases that plagued the ancient peoples.
Riaan Rifkin spent many vacations as a teen exploring an Iron Age settlement near his home in Pretoria, South Africa. Now, he hunts for even smaller prehistoric artifacts, particularly the DNA of ancient pathogens.
The Iron Age saw much progress that came with the advent of agriculture and raising livestock. However, along with the progress, it also saw the rise of communicable diseases like measles. It is possible that studying the origins of these diseases might unlock how to prevent them today.
Studies show that ancient humans learned how to combat these diseases. Around 50,000 years ago, cave dwellers slept on grasses with insecticidal properties, which keep parasites like ticks and fleas away. Nomadic peoples moved their settlements every few weeks to keep disease-carrying pests from closing in on them.
Back to modern day, Himba women from southern Africa cover their bodies with a mixture of butterfat and red ochre. This mixture acts as sunscreen and insect repellent.
According to Rifkin, ancient bacterial genomes from around 2,500 years ago from South African samples have already been reconstructed. Looking forward, he claims that within a decade, we will be able to study older and older genomes.
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