Scientists Accidentally Discover Ancient Hepatitis B in a 16th-Century Mummy

Gino Fornaciari, University Of Pisa
Gino Fornaciari, University Of Pisa

Since the 1980s, a child mummy buried in the Basilica of Saint Domenico Maggiore in Naples, Italy in the 16th century has been known as the earliest recorded case of smallpox in the world. The problem is, the 2-year-old didn’t have smallpox, according to new research spotted by IFLScience. But, as the scientists reexamining the remains discovered, it’s still a landmark study in disease evolution. It appears to be the earliest instance of hepatitis B that researchers have ever found in Italy, giving scientists insight into how the virus has evolved over the last several centuries.

The hepatitis B virus (HBV) attacks the liver and can result in cirrhosis and liver cancer, killing around 887,000 people per year. Though it can now be largely prevented by a vaccine, the World Health Organization estimates that 257 million people around the world live with HBV. It often affects children, spreading from mother to child during birth.

For the current study published in PLOS Pathogens, a team of researchers from McMaster University in Canada set about studying the child mummy with the hopes of continuing their past work nailing down how smallpox spread and evolved over human history. But when they used molecular analysis to study the mummy’s skin and bones, they didn’t find anything that indicated that the toddler had smallpox. Instead, they found the hepatitis B virus—which can cause a rash called Gianotti-Crosti Syndrome that the original researchers studying the mummy may have mistaken for the telltale rash associated with smallpox.

The ancient HBV strain found in the mummy's tissues had a genome closely related to that of the modern virus, which, The New York Times explains, could very well mean that the mummy was contaminated when it was first studied in the 1980s. But after analyzing the genetic material further and studying other examples of older HBV strains, they found that it’s plausible that the virus just hasn’t evolved extensively in the past 500 years. Though the contamination theory is still possible, it’s more likely that the mummy really does carry an ancient version of the virus. Considering that HBV has also been traced back to the 16th century in Asia, it’s likely that Europeans were suffering from it around the same time.

[h/t IFLScience]

4000-Year-Old Egyptian Tomb Opens to the Public for the First Time

Khaled Desouki, AFP/Getty Images
Khaled Desouki, AFP/Getty Images

Sightseers traveling to Egypt have a new stop to add to their itineraries. As CNN reports, the 4000-year-old tomb of a royal vizier has opened to the public for the first time since its discovery.

Mehu was a high-ranking advisor to King Titi of the sixth dynasty sometime around 2300 BCE. He was buried in Egypt's Old Kingdom not far from modern-day Giza, home to the Great Pyramids and the Great Sphinx.

The walls of the tomb are decorated with well-preserved, brightly-colored paintings, which include everyday scenes like fishing and metalworking, as well as more fantastical images such as a crocodile marrying a turtle. Mehu's son Meren Ra and his grandson Heteb Kha are also buried there.

The site was discovered by Egyptologist Zaki Saad in 1940. By inviting members of public to explore the chambers, Egypt hopes to draw even more tourists to the region.

You can take a look inside the tomb by watching the video below.

[h/t CNN]

Fishermen Caught a 10,500-Year-Old Giant Irish Elk Skull—Antlers and All

Courtesy of Ardboe Gallery
Courtesy of Ardboe Gallery

The Irish elk (megaloceros giganteus) has been extinct in Ireland for about 10,500 years. So you can imagine how surprised two fishermen were when they pulled up their net and discovered a prehistoric elk skull—with antlers attached—as their catch of the day.

As Smithsonian reports, Raymond McElroy and Charlie Coyle were fishing in Ireland's Lough Neagh, a lake near the town of Ardboe, when they thought their net had snagged on a piece of driftwood. However, when they finally managed to hoist it out of the water, they discovered the skull with antlers measuring over six feet across.

"I thought it was the devil himself," Coyle told The Irish Times. "I was going to throw it back in. I didn't know what to do with it."

McElroy, however, recalled that a jawbone of an ancient Irish elk (possibly from the same animal discovered by the fishermen) was caught in the same area in 2014. For the time being, he's keeping the skull in his garage.

This particular elk probably stood about 6.5 feet tall. It's worth noting, though, that the name "Irish elk" is a bit of a misnomer. The animal is actually classified as a type of deer—in fact, the largest deer to ever have existed.

The "Irish" part of the name stems from the fact that fossils of the animal are often discovered in Ireland's lakes and bogs, which help preserve the bones. However, the animals once roamed throughout Europe, North Africa, and parts of Asia. It was roughly the same size as a modern-day moose, weighed about 1300 pounds, and some animals needed a clearance of 13 feet just to squeeze their antlers between the trees.

"Giant antlers aren't great in the forest," Mike Simms at the Ulster Museum tells Belfast Live. "Environmental change is what caused their extinction."

And thus, the Irish elk joined giant sloths, giant beavers, saber-toothed tigers, mastodons, and mammoths in the enormous extinct animals club, never to be seen again (or at least until the next fishing expedition).

[h/t Smithsonian]

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