Czech archaeologists help scientists discover Hepatitis B affected humans in pre-historic times

According to the results of a new study published in the academic journal Science, all known modern versions of Hepatitis B can be traced back to the same original version of the virus that affected people before they were even farmers. The major study drew on samples of pre-historic human remains collected by Czech archaeologists.

Hepatitis B (HBV) is one of the most common viruses in the world and still kills aproximately 820,000 people a year.

Data analysed in the international study, led by the German Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, suggest that all known HBV genotypes descend from a strain that was infecting the ancestors of the First Americans as well as their closest Eurasian relatives around the time these populations began diverging.

Furthermore, researchers found that the virus was present in large parts of Europe from as early as 10,000 years ago.

One of the interesting insights found in the data is that while scientists believe many modern pathogens only started affecting humans once they settled down and began farming, hepatitis was shown to have been present even among hunter gatherers.

The wide range of the study was also made possible thanks to the many DNA samples collected from burial sites in the Czech Republic.

Dr Michal Ernée from the Institute of Archaeology at the Czech Academy of Sciences is one of the archaeologists who have been collecting and sharing this data with the Max Planck institute and several others as part of a joint project for five years now.

Michal Ernée | Photo: Czech Academy of Sciences

“This information is based on the screenings of hundreds of skeletons whose pre-historic DNA is being studied.

“It is a fascinating discovery, because it is quite hard to trace the origins of a disease, something that we can also see with the coronavirus today.

“It was possible to trace the closest common relative of all of the modern strains of Hepatitis B. We are talking about 10,000 to 20,000 years in the past here.”

The new study is not the first example of successful collaboration between the Institute of Archaeology and the Max Planck Institute.

Earlier this year, Czech and German scientists published DNA evidence of at least three hitherto unknown migratory waves that passed through Bohemia in prehistoric times.

This was made possible by studying the remains of 271 people who lived between the years 4,900 to 1,600 BCE.

Dr Ernée says that the teams are now working on another article that should be published next year. It is concerned with analysing the familial relations between a specific Early Bronze Age community that is buried in a necropolis near Mikulovice in the Pardubice region.

Asked about why the Czech lands are such a rich source for pre-historic human remains analysis, Dr Ernée says that the reason is two-fold.

“The advantage that the Czech lands have in this respect is the region’s location in the centre of Europe and the fact that it is an area which housed several different pre-historic cultures.

“These cultures are relevant also for other regions in Europe.

“Archaeologists tend to differentiate between cultures that are prevalent in Western, Eastern or Northern Europe. However, they almost always dissect in this region.

“That means that the samples we collect are useful for a much larger area than is normally the case.

“Another advantage is that we have a lot of skeletal remains here. Several other cultures burned their dead, rather than buried them, which makes collecting DNA samples impossible.”

Dr Ernée says that the oldest skeleton yet found in the Czech lands that suffered from Hepatitis B dates back to around 3,000 BCE.