New research reveals that smallpox dates back to the 17th century.

The mummified remains of 4-years old child from Lithuania might offer insight on the timeline of smallpox, a contagious childhood disease, which is sometimes fatal. DNA tests performed on the body suggest that smallpox might not be as old as the pyramids in Egypt.

Ana Duggan, a postdoctoral student, and the new study’s author announced that the mummified remains of a child could provide more insight into the origin of smallpox. In 2015, a team of archaeologists who was studying the Dominican Church of the Holy Spirit, a majestic edifice from Vilnius, which dates back to the beginning of the 15th century, stumbled upon a crypt.

Upon opening it, the research team discovered the perfectly preserved remains of a young child. Carbon dating revealed that the child was 2 to 4 years old, and that he died between 1643 and 1665.

However, further investigation revealed that the body of the mummified infants presented pockmarked scarring, a telltale sign of smallpox. The study’s author pointed out that this discovery is important because it literally shatters the entire timeline of smallpox.

Before the boy’s mummified body was discovered, scientists believed that smallpox was around ever since the great pyramids were built. Duggan pointed out that several tests performed on Egyptian mummies which were 3,000 and even 4,000 years old revealed skin formations which were very similar to pockmarked scarring.

However, the latest discovery might prove that these signs were misinterpreted. Duggan said that it’s hard to distinguish between smallpox, chicken pox, and measles, and this is the main reason why an accurate disease timeline was not established until now.

The DNA samples collected from the Lithuanian mummy presented traces of the ancestral variola virus, from which originate the other strains of the virus. Smallpox was eradicated in the late 70s, thanks to a worldwide vaccination program.

In order to confirm the new timeline, the scientists compared the sample collected from the boy’s body to 20th-century variola virus strains, relying on a technique called analyzing the molecular clock. The analysis revealed that the most modern strains of the virus have stemmed from the 17th-century variant.

Scientists regard this discovery as epochal since it contradicts everything we knew about the disease’s chronology. The team involved in this projects hope that they study will help virologists trace back certain diseases back in time with increased accuracy.

Image source: Wikipedia