(WASHINGTON POST) -- As the novel coronavirus pandemic reshapes lives and entire economies, historians tell us this is not the first time. The earliest written records of tiny infectious organisms overhauling human societies stretch back as far as the Plague of Justinian in A.D. 541, which is thought to have killed up to 50 million people, or even the earlier Antonine Plague in A.D. 165, which left 5 million dead, a substantial portion of the world then.
Now, paleogenomics - a nascent field that studies DNA in remnants of ancient teeth - is rewriting the first chapter of humanity's entanglement with disease to thousands of years older than originally thought. The growing evidence suggests that these first epidemics forced societies to make epoch-defining transformations.
"In the case of covid-19 [the disease caused by the coronavirus], we see similar processes, but we are watching it unfold in real time," said Anne Stone, regents professor in the School of Human Evolution and Social Change at Arizona State University, whose focus is anthropological genetics. She also has studied evidence of tuberculosis in ancient DNA.
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