Tales from the grave: celiac disease in ancient times

By Jason Clevenger

Summary: A group of Italian archaeologists, medical anthropologists and physicians published a detailed examination of the remains of a first-century AD woman who exhibited signs of malnutrition, stunted height, osteoporosis and chronic iron-deficient anemia that are all consistent with celiac disease.

The woman, who was approximately 18 to 20 years old at the time of death, appeared to be from a wealthy background where food availability was presumably not a concern. The researchers extracted viable DNA from her remains and determined she carried the HLA DQ2 gene that is shared with 90percent of those known to have celiac disease.

Conclusion: The combination of evidence in this case is compelling for the diagnosis of celiac disease in this two-thousand-year-old death. This report marks the first time that HLA genetic marking for celiac disease has been attempted in an archeological specimen and is an important step in the understanding of the history of human disease development.


[1] “Origin of celiac disease: How old are predisposing haplotypes”, Gasbarrini G, Rickards O, Martínez-Labarga C, Pacciani E, Chilleri F, Laterza L, Marangi G, Scaldaferri F, Gasbarrini A., World Journal of Gastroenterology 2012 Oct 7;18(37):5300-5304.