Researchers document clinical evidence of celiac disease in 2,000-year-old skeleton

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Researchers document clinical evidence of celiac disease in 2,000-year-old skeleton

If you’re living with celiac disease, you may sometimes feel like you’re alone on an island, isolated from people who don’t maintain a gluten-free diet. We get it – we know how you feel. While support programs like the Gluten Freedom Project offer a helping hand, eating a diet completely free of gluten can be tough for anyone.

It may offer little comfort, but rest assured you’re not the first person who’s lived with celiac disease, nor will you be the last. In fact, new research suggests humans have been suffering the ill effects of celiac disease for at least 2,000 years.

Late last year, Italian doctors published results of their study of a 2,000-year-old skeleton unearthed in the Cosa archeological site in southwest Tuscany. The female was about 20-years-old and given the number of jewels found in her tomb, came from a wealthy family.

However, she looked severely malnourished. She was short, showed signs of osteoporosis, had inadequate dental enamel and indicators of anemia. Based on the evidence present in her bones, it seemed the woman could have suffered from celiac disease.

The researchers extracted DNA from her skeleton, and were able to isolate the DNA sequence – or haplotype – associated with the highest risk of celiac disease. (If you’re really interested, you can read about their methods here).

Interesting, right?

The docs say this is the first clinical evidence of celiac disease in the ancient world. Anecdotal evidence is available, thanks to Aretaeus of Cappadocia, who documented the disease’s symptoms in 250 AD. He described his patients as “koiliakos” which meant “suffering in the bowels” in Greek. In 1856, a British doctor translated the word to English, calling his patients with similar symptoms “coeliacs,” or “celiacs” as we say in the U.S.