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Skeleton Find Links Malaria to Fall of Rome

Analysis of the skeleton of a child buried on the eve of the fall of the Roman Empire has revealed that the barbarians may have had a secret ally: malaria.

British and American researchers say that DNA from the 1,500-year-old bones, found in a cemetery north of Rome, yielded evidence of an epidemic.

A lethal outbreak could partly explain why antiquity's mightiest military machine was too enfeebled to repel the Visigoths, Huns, and Vandals.

The discovery—the earliest genetic evidence of malaria yet identified—has been hailed as a breakthrough in the collaboration between archaeology and biomolecular science.

Excavations at a cemetery for infants in Lugnano, dated to the year 450, found a leg bone of a three-year-old child suffering from Plasmodium falciparum, the most virulent form of human malaria.

Around 50 infants' skeletons were buried within a short period of time, suggesting an epidemic. The smallest skeletons were too degraded to produce DNA samples but some had pitted cranium surfaces—another sign of malaria.

The disease is thought to have spawned panic: despite the fact that Romans were by then officially Christians, pagan offerings such as a raven's claw and decapitated puppy skeletons were found nearby.

Malaria is a mosquito-borne fever caused by a protozoan parasite which thrives in warm, marshy areas such as the Tiber river valley. The falciparum strain causes miscarriage and infant death.

Some historians had long suspected that malaria contributed to the empire's decline and fall by sapping morale and manpower.

Robert Sallares, a research fellow at the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology, and Susan Comz, a student, reported their results in the journal Ancient Biomolecules.

The skeleton was recovered in the early 1990s by a team of archaeologists led by David Soren of the University of Arizona. He told the Washington Post that the DNA findings were new and exciting. "The idea that this deadly type of malaria really existed in imperial Rome had never been documented."

Rot set into the empire from the late second century. The economy and army stagnated in the third and fourth centuries as Persians and northern tribes encroached. Traditional historians say the western empire was tottering when Alaric's Visigoths sacked Rome in 410.

In 452 Attila's Huns pillaged northern Italy on their way to Rome. According to Christian chronicles, Pope Leo the Great confronted the barbarian and talked him into withdrawing. The DNA analysis suggests the real reason for the withdrawal may have been Attila's fear of exposing his troops to a malaria epidemic.

It was a short respite. Three years later Gaiseric the Vandal sailed from his pirate kingdom in north Africa to invade Italy and sack Rome.

The western empire finally collapsed in 476 when Odoacer was crowned king of Italy at Pavia.

Professor Michael Whitby, a historian at the University of Warwick, said malaria would probably not have afflicted the legions as they were mostly stationed in northern Italy.

"These armies could on occasion have been exposed to malarial areas but not necessarily. However, if there was a serious outbreak and agricultural prosperity suffered, then there could have been knock-on effects on military supports."