These unassuming creatures have turned out to be the vector of tuberculosis's original arrival on Turtle Island, according to a DNA analysis of strains in Peru centuries before Europeans hit these shores.

Tuberculosis Brought to Turtle Island by Seals and Sea Lions, Not Europeans: DNA Study


European settlers have long been seen as bringing scourge after scourge of disease to Turtle Island. And in the north particularly, Indigenous Peoples suffer from exponentially higher rates of one of those diseases, tuberculosis, than in other demographics. Until now, the two issues were thought to be linked.

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But new research has shown that TB originally came to these shores from seals and sea lions, according to an article in the journal Nature. Although today’s prevalent strains are still most closely related to the ones circulating in Europe, the lung disease was already well entrenched when Europeans arrived, according to Arizona State University (ASU), whose scientists conducted the study.

“New research shows that tuberculosis likely spread from humans in Africa to seals and sea lions that brought the disease to South America and transmitted it to Native people there before Europeans landed on the continent,” said Arizona State University in a statement on August 20.

Researchers at Arizona State University, seeking the origin of the dreaded and often fatal lung disease, analyzed genetic samples from all over the world looking for tuberculosis DNA, which they found in three samples from Peru dating back to 750-1350 A.D., ASU said. It revealed “unequivocal evidence” that in Peru 1,000 years ago—centuries before contact—a tuberculosis strain was already present. Those results were compared to a larger database of modern genomes and animal strains, ASU said, and the results pointed to a “clear relationship to animal lineages, specifically seals and sea lions,” ASU said.

“We found that the tuberculosis strains were most closely related to strains in pinnipeds, which are seals and sea lions,” said Anne Stone, a professor of human evolution and social change at ASU.

Europeans are not entirely off the hook, though. Besides having TB strains that are most closely related to those found in the U.S. and Canada today, there is the matter of the recent revelation that, no matter the source, Canadian authorities studied TB’s effect on aboriginal children in the 1940s while withholding treatment.

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And Captain Cook is known to have brought it to Hawaii.

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Nonetheless, the revelatory research results showed unequivocally that the disease was present here for centuries before Europeans arrived.

“Our results show unequivocal evidence of human infection caused by pinnipeds (sea lions and seals) in pre-Columbian South America,” said Stone. “Within the past 2,500 years, the marine animals likely contracted the disease from an African host species and carried it across the ocean to coastal people in South America.”

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