Parasitology, Harold W. Manter Laboratory of


Date of this Version


Document Type



PLoS ONE 4(9): e6983

doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0006983

Editor: Michael D. Petraglia, University of Oxford, United Kingdom


Copyright 2009, the authors. Open access material

License: Creative Commons Attribution (CC BY)



Leishmaniasis is an infectious disease endemic today in many areas of South America.


We discovered morphologic and molecular evidence of ancient infections in four female skulls in the archaeological cemetery of Coyo Oriente, in the desert of San Pedro de Atacama, northern Chile. The boney facial lesions visible in the skulls could have been caused by a number of chronic infections including chronic Leishmaniasis. This diagnosis was confirmed using PCR-sequenced analyses of bone fragments from the skulls of the affected individuals. Leishmaniasis is not normally found in the high-altitude desert of northern Chile; where the harsh climate does not allow the parasite to complete its life cycle. The presence of Leishmaniasis in ancient skulls from the region implies infection by the protozoan in an endemic area–likely, in our subjects, to have been the lowlands of northeastern Argentina or in southern Bolivia.


We propose that the presence of the disease in ancient times in the high altitude desert of San Pedro de Atacama is the result of an exogamic system of patrilocal marriages, where women from different cultures followed their husbands to their ancestral homes, allowing immigrant women, infected early in life, to be incorporated in the Atacama desert society before they became disfigured by the disease. The present globalization of goods and services and the extraordinary facile movement of people across borders and continents have lead to a resurgence of infectious diseases and re-emergence of infections such as Leishmaniasis. We show here that such factors were already present millennia ago, shaping demographic trends and the epidemiology of infections just as they do today.

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