By Dr. Larry Chiaramonte
Medical diagnosis involves taking a good history, but new science is changing our sense of proportion on how far back to go. We think of the allergy epidemic as a response to the world we have created—to paraphrase Australian allergist Dr. Susan Prescott—but we also know that various allergic symptoms have been recorded over thousands of years.
A recent article in the Journal Nature Communications and then reported in the New York Times shows us just how many other diseases of “modernity” may be much older than we previously thought. Much, much older.
The Tyrolean Iceman, found frozen in the Italian Alps in 1991, died 5300 years ago at the age of 46 from an arrow through the heart, and he had knee problems. Now we learn that he was also blood-type O, programmed for coronary artery disease and, of all things, lactose intolerance, and may even have had Lyme Disease.
We know that lactose intolerance involves the lack of an enzyme to digest milk, but Iceman didn’t need it. Anthropologist Albert Zink from the European Academy of Research in Bolzano, Italy, and one of the study’s authors said, “In early times, there was no need to digest milk as an adult because there were no domesticated animals.” After domestication began, most of us began to produce that enzyme. Even more interesting as far as I’m concerned is the scientists’ speculation that if Iceman hadn’t been killed by an arrow, he might have died of a heart attack. Life was indeed “nasty, brutish, and short.”
One of these days, some scientist might find out what Iceman would eventually have been allergic to.