A rare example of physical evidence of leprosy in the Americas has been found on the uninhabited Caribbean island of Petite Mustique, now part of St Vincent and the Grenadines.
The skull was found eroding out of the beach in 2003 and was kept on the island until 2014, when researchers were given permission to export it for scientific investigation. Radiocarbon dating has indicated that the skull is c.220 years old, most likely dating to the turn of the 18th century, making it not just the only directly dated skeleton with leprosy from the Western Hemisphere, but possibly the earliest example currently known from the region as well. Analysis of the cranium suggests that it belonged to a female young adult, aged between 20 and 25 years old. The skull displays a set of pathological changes known as the rhinomaxillary syndrome, indicative of infection by Mycobacterium leprae: a clear sign that the individual was suffering from early-stage leprosy.
Leprosy, also known as Hansen’s disease, has been documented in the Caribbean since the mid 17th century, and is believed to have arrived with Europeans and Africans during the colonial period, but historical records are incomplete and very little skeletal evidence has been found. The discovery from Petite Mustique provides important archaeological evidence for the disease’s spread in the area.
The skull also supports historical records that suggest Petite Mustique may have been the site of a failed attempt to establish a leprosarium in the early 1800s. There are a few known cases of small islands in the Caribbean and the Pacific that were used to house people with leprosy, but the discovery of physical evidence for the presence of an individual with leprosy on Petite Mustique, dating to the period indicated by the few surviving historical references, sheds new light on this chapter of the island’s history.
The research has been published in the International Journal of Paleopathology.