Ancient viral genomes reveal introduction of human pathogenic viruses into Mexico during the transatlantic slave trade | eLife

After the European colonization of the Americas there was a dramatic population collapse of the Indigenous inhabitants caused in part by the introduction of new pathogens. Although there is much speculation on the etiology of the Colonial epidemics, direct evidence for the presence of specific viruses during the Colonial era is lacking. To uncover the diversity of viral pathogens during this period, we designed an enrichment assay targeting ancient DNA (aDNA) from viruses of clinical importance and applied it to DNA extracts from individuals found in a Colonial hospital and a Colonial chapel (16th c. – 18th c.) where records suggest victims of epidemics were buried during important outbreaks in Mexico City. This allowed us to reconstruct three ancient human parvovirus B19 genomes, and one ancient human hepatitis B virus genome from distinct individuals. The viral genomes are similar to African strains, consistent with the inferred morphological and genetic African ancestry of the hosts as well as with the isotopic analysis of the human remains, suggesting an origin on the African continent. This study provides direct molecular evidence of ancient viruses being transported to the Americas during the transatlantic slave trade and their subsequent introduction to New Spain. Altogether, our observations enrich the discussion about the etiology of infectious diseases during the Colonial period in Mexico.
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