Viking squirrels may have brought leprosy to Britain, according to Cambridge study
According to new research by Cambridge University, the bacteria was carried across the North Sea around the time of the Vikings. Researchers made their claim after studying a woman’s skull, found in Hoxne, Suffolk, at the end of the 20th century.
The woman, thought to have lived between 885AD and 1015AD, was found to have the same strain of the infectious disease that was identified in skeletal remains in medieval Denmark and Sweden.
“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,” said Sarah Inskip, research associate at St John’s College, Cambridge, according to the Telegraph.
“Strong trade connections with Denmark and Sweden were in full flow in the medieval period, with Kings Lynn and Yarmouth becoming significant ports for fur imports.”
The ‘Woman from Hoxne’ was also found to have the same strain that was found in the skull of a man discovered in Great Chesterford, East Anglia, who lived as early as 415AD to 545D. The finding therefore suggests the disease may have lurked in the region for hundreds of years.
“This new evidence, coupled with the prevalence of leper hospitals in East Anglia from the 11th century onwards, adds weight to the idea the disease was endemic in this region earlier than other parts of the country,” Inskip said.
Noting that previous research has already proved that the disease may be passed from armadillos to humans, the researcher said the idea that it may also come from squirrels is “interesting.”
While it is “questionable” how much the bacteria may have survived on meat, one must consider squirrels could have been kept as pets at the time, she added.
“Perhaps it’s the movement of people and prolonged connection between East Anglia and Scandinavia that’s important to our understanding of the history of leprosy in the UK, but further research refuting or confirming the role of the fur trade could be highly enlightening and exciting,” the researcher added.