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Skull find unearths squirrel link to leprosy in the Middle Ages

A pre-Norman skull unearthed in a garden in Hoxne, Suffolk, which was found to have been infected with the same strain of leprosy identified in other skeletal remains in East Anglia. Picture: SARAH INSKIP/HANDOUT/PA WIRE

A pre-Norman skull unearthed in a garden in Hoxne, Suffolk, which was found to have been infected with the same strain of leprosy identified in other skeletal remains in East Anglia. Picture: SARAH INSKIP/HANDOUT/PA WIRE

A medieval skull found in Suffolk may have solved an ancient medical puzzle.

Squirrel in the Abbey gardens, Bury St Edmunds. Picture: PAMELA BIDWELLSquirrel in the Abbey gardens, Bury St Edmunds. Picture: PAMELA BIDWELL

Scientific studies of the skeletal remains threw up an unlikely link between stowaway squirrels and a leprosy epidemic in the Middle Ages.

Research suggests the fluffy-tailed rodents brought the disease along Viking trading routes.

According to a study published in the Journal of Medical Microbiology, a pre-Norman skull unearthed in a Hoxne garden was among a growing number of locally discovered human remains infected with the same strain. The strain identified in ‘the woman from Hoxne’ has also been identified in skeletal remains in medieval Denmark and Sweden.

The Hoxne skull had been held in the collections of Diss Museum since its accidental discovery in the late 20th century.

Researchers used radiocarbon dating to establish that the woman is likely to have lived between 885-1015AD and had traces of the bacteria M.leprae in her DNA.

Sarah Inskip, research associate at St John’s College, Cambridge, said: “It is possible that this strain of leprosy was proliferated in the south east of England by contact with highly prized squirrel pelt and meat, which was traded by the Vikings at the time this woman was alive. Strong trade connections with Denmark and Sweden were in full flow in the medieval period, with King’s Lynn and Great Yarmouth (in Norfolk) becoming significant ports for fur imports.”

The last case of human leprosy in the British Isles was more than 200 years ago, but a recent study demonstrated leprosy infection in red squirrels on Brownsea Island, in Dorset.

Sequencing of the strain in modern red squirrels showed it to be closely related to that detected in the woman from Hoxne.

Dr Inskip said further research refuting or confirming the role of the fur trade in spreading leprosy could be “highly enlightening”.

The strain had previously been found in the skeleton of a man from Great Chesterford, near Saffron Walden, who lived as early as 415-545AD, suggesting it persisted for hundreds of years in the south east of Britain.

“This new evidence coupled with the prevalence of leper hospitals in East Anglia from the 11th century onwards adds weight to the idea that the disease was endemic in this region earlier than in other parts of the country,” said Dr Inskip.

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