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Paranthropus boisei (Forensic facial reconstruction) likely contracted the virus from eating chimpanzees.

Our Ancestors Should Have Avoided Parathropus Boisei – They Gave Us Genital Herpes

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Scientists claim that they have identified the ancient hominin species that gave early humans genital herpes two million years ago. Parathropus boisei was a heavyset human-like species with a very small brain that walked on two legs, and is the one to blame for passing to humanity one of the most common viral diseases.

Paranthropus Boisei Passes Herpes to Humans Through Our Ancestor Homo Erectus

Herpes is a pain the neck (to say the least) and unfortunately has been around almost forever. In 2013 alone, about 1.1 billion people (15.9% of the global population) had asymptomatic genital herpes and 47 million new cases of genital herpes occurred. Various studies have showed that it is the most common sexually transmitted infection by the number of cases. According to The Washington Post, we now know who to blame for this terrible viral disease that infects so many of us; his name is Parathropus boisei. It is believed that he most likely contracted the virus after eating infected ancestral chimpanzees, and then passed the pathogen onto us when hunted by Homo erectus for food.


Paranthropus boisei (jr synonym Paranthropus boisei) skull, 1.75 million years old

Paranthropus boisei (jr synonym Paranthropus boisei) skull, 1.75 million years old (CC BY-SA 3.0)

That scenario seems to be quite realistic, as the researchers have found that Paranthropus boisei (also known as “the Nutcracker Man” thanks to his immense teeth) and our ancestor Homo erectus would drink water from common sources, such as Kenya's Lake Turkana. This provided the opportunity for the genital herpes virus to shift onto our bloodline.

Distinction Between Herpes Viruses and Its Spread Throughout the Centuries

Ancient chimpanzees genetically passed oral herpes (herpes simplex 1, or HSV-1) to the earliest humans millions of years ago when our lineage split. And we almost missed out on catching that other affliction, genital herpes (HSV-2). Unlike HSV-1, HSV-2 didn’t make the leap to early humans on its own, but as we already mentioned, Paranthropus boisei was in the right place at the right time to catch HSV-2 and pass it to us through our ancestor, Homo erectus. "Herpes infect everything from humans to coral, with each species having its own specific set of viruses," Charlotte Houldcroft, a virologist at the University of Cambridge in England, said as Science Daily reports.

Dr. Houldcroft and her team used data ranging from fossil finds to herpes DNA and ancient African climates to come to their conclusion. They input this data into a computer program that modeled HSV2 transmission probabilities for the hominin species that roamed Africa three million years ago.

Reproduction of Paranthropus boisei

Reproduction of Paranthropus boisei (CC BY-SA 3.0)

The researchers found the species with the highest transmission probability was Parathropus boisei, a genetic fit virally who was found in the right places to be the herpes intermediary, "For these viruses to jump species barriers they need a lucky genetic mutation combined with significant fluid exchange. In the case of early hominins, this means through consumption or intercourse -- or possibly both. By modeling the available data, from fossil records to viral genetics, we believe that Parathropus boisei was the species in the right place at the right time to both contract HSV2 from ancestral chimpanzees, and transmit it to our earliest ancestors, probably Homo erectus," Dr. Houldcroft explained as Science Daily reports.

Spread of the Virus Probably Involved Swapping Bodily Fluids

The most interesting theory suggested in this study is that there was a possible exchange of bodily fluids between Homo erectus and Parathropus boisei as Dr. Houldcroft proposes, “You can speculate in any scurrilous way that you like because we can’t be sure,” she tells The Washington Post, and suggests that violence was probably involved during the transmission of the virus. Maybe our ancestor murdered and consumed a Paranthropus boisei. Another theory Dr. Houldcroft suggests is that Homo erectus scavenged on Paranthropus boisei's corpse, or maybe the “Nutcracker Man” chomped on an attacking Homo erectus in defense. “The idea that it possibly would have jumped over during a violent encounter, butchering and eating, is actually very similar to the way modern chimp viruses have jumped into humans,” Joel Wertheim, an evolutionary biologist that didn’t participate in the study but examines infectious disease at University of California, San Diego's medical school, told The Washington Post. And added, “People who butchered chimpanzee carcasses were the first exposed to the pandemic strain of HIV.”

The statistical detective work of the virologists and anthropologists hunting for herpes's ancient origin, was published in the journal Virus Evolution on Sunday.

Top image: Paranthropus boisei (Forensic facial reconstruction) likely contracted the virus from eating chimpanzees. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

By Theodoros Karasavvas

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Theodoros Karasavvas, J.D.-M.A. has a cum laude degree in Law from the University of Athens, a Masters Degree in Legal History from the University of Pisa, and a First Certificate in English from Cambridge University. When called upon to do... Read More

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