Scientists trace prevalence of cold sores to kissing back to the Bronze Age

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Scientists trace prevalence of cold sores to kissing back to the Bronze Age

A new study has found that the herpes virus that commonly causes cold sores became widespread at the beginning of Bronze Age migration, and that the kissing that came with it may have fueled it. Obviously, the version we have today outweighed all the others about 5,000 years ago.

Scientists trace prevalence of cold sores to kissing back to the Bronze Age
Image credit: Pixabay.

Cold sores are a common viral infection. They appear as small blisters on or around the lips, often grouped together in patches. They are spread from person to person by close contact such as kissing and are caused by the herpes simplex virus, which accounts for two-thirds of the population. Most cold sores heal without leaving a trace in two or three weeks.

The virus has a history that goes back millions of years, with forms infecting a variety of species, from corals to bats. Despite its contemporary spread among humans, scientists have had a hard time finding ancient examples of HSV-1, the most common type of herpes virus. Now, a new study by Cambridge researchers has struck herpes gold.

“Facial herpes hides in its host for life and is only transmitted through oral contact, so mutations occur slowly over centuries and millennia,” co-author Charlotte Holdcroft said in a statement. “We need to investigate deeply in time to understand how such DNA viruses evolve. Previously, genetic data for shingles only went back to 1925.”

detection of herpes

The researchers were able to pinpoint herpes in the remains of four individuals, spanning a 1,000-year period, and extract DNA from the roots of the teeth. At least two had gum disease and a third had tobacco use. The oldest specimen was of an adult male excavated in Russia about 1,500 years ago

Two other specimens were from Cambridge, UK. A female from an early Anglo-Saxon cemetery, dating from the 6–7 centuries CE, and a young adult male from the late 14th century, buried in the grounds of a medieval hospital. The last specimen came from a young adult excavated in Holland, who was probably killed by a French attack on his city in 1672.

Analysis of the DNA of these four individuals showed that herpes viruses at the time were very similar to the viruses seen today and could be traced back to the Bronze Age. The timing coincides with mass migration and population growth from the grasslands of Eurasia to Europe that would have increased the spread of the virus.

But there is another factor that may come into play, the researchers said. The earliest known record of kissing is from a manuscript from South Asia from the Bronze Age. Kissing likely arrived with a westward migration, providing a route for the virus to spread. Until then, shingles was transmitted from mother to child, limiting its spread.

“Every primate species has a form of ringworm, so we believe it is with us because our own species left Africa. However, something happened about five thousand years ago that caused one strain of herpes to kill all others.” allowed further exposure, possibly an increase in transmission, which could have been linked to kissing,” concluded co-author Christiana Scheib.

The study was published in the journal Science Advances.