Advances in the molecular detection of tuberculosis in pre-contact Andean South America

Elizabeth A. Nelson, Jane E. Buikstra, Alexander Herbig, Tiffiny A. Tung, Kirsten I. Bos

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

8 Scopus citations


Andean paleopathological research has significantly enhanced knowledge about the geographical distribution and evolution of tuberculosis (TB) in pre-Columbian South America. In this paper, we review the history and progress of research on ancient tuberculosis (TB) in the Andean region, focusing on the strengths and limitations of current approaches for the molecular detection of ancient pathogens, with special attention to TB. As a case study, we describe a molecular screening approach for the detection of ancient Mycobacterium tuberculosis in individuals from Late Intermediate Period (1000–1400 CE) contexts at the site of Huari, Peru. We evaluate 34 commingled human vertebrae and combine morphological assessments of pathology with high throughput sequencing and a non-selective approach to ancient pathogen DNA screening. Our method enabled the simultaneous detection of ancient M. tuberculosis DNA and an evaluation of the environmental microbial composition of each sample. Our results show that despite the dominance of environmental DNA, molecular signatures of M. tuberculosis were identified in eight vertebrae, six of which had no observable skeletal pathology classically associated tuberculosis infection. This screening approach will assist in the identification of candidate samples for downstream genomic analyses. The method permits higher resolution disease identification in cases where pathology may be absent, or where the archaeological context may necessitate a broad differential diagnosis based on morphology alone.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)128-140
Number of pages13
JournalInternational Journal of Paleopathology
StatePublished - Jun 2020


  • Ancient DNA
  • Andean South America
  • Huari
  • Molecular paleopathology
  • Tuberculosis

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Pathology and Forensic Medicine
  • Archaeology


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