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Chagas disease in pre-Colombian civilizations

F. Guhl

Universidad de los Andes, Centro de Investigaciones en Microbiologfa y Parasitologfa Tropical, Bogota, Colombia

Chapter Outline

Introduction 23 Genetic variation 24 Archeology 25

Biochemistry (Bioarcheology) 25

The parasite transmission cycle 27

Insect vectors associated with the human habitats 29

Historical overview 32

Pre-Hispanic settlements in areas of transmission of T. cruzi 34

Argentine-Bolivian Altiplano, Northwest Argentina 36 Sierras Centrales 36 Sur del Peril 36

Meso-America, Mayan culture 37 Andean region, Northern South America 39 Oral infection by T. cruzi 39

Evidence of human T. cruzi infection in pre-Colombian civilizations 40 References 44


Chagas disease caused by the parasite Trypanosoma cruzi is a complex zoonosis that is widely distributed throughout the American continent. More than 150 species of triatomine bugs and more than 100 species of mammals, mostly wild species, maintain T. cruzi infection in nature. The infection can be acquired by infected triatomine feces, blood transfusion, oral and vertical transmission. Chagas disease represents an important public health problem, with estimates by the World Health Organization in 2015 of at least 6 million people having T. cruzi infection in 21 Latin American countries and 25% of Latin America’s population being at risk due to the geographical distribution of insect vectors.

* In memoriam to Arthur Aufderheide who opened a new research field in ancient medicine and parasitology.

American Trypanosomiasis Chagas Disease. DOI:

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Also, immigration of infected people from endemic countries is now making Chagas disease a relevant health issue in other regions, including Europe and the United States.1

Chagas disease comprises two stages where the acute phase occurs about 1 week after initial infection, and about 30—40% of the infected patients develop the chronic phase of the disease when the cardiomyopathy is the most frequent and severe clinical manifestation.

Reconstruction of the behavior of a modern disease during antiquity is a formidable challenge. However, success in such an endeavor would allow for the creation of a new database, and this new information could then spawn new hypotheses. Their results could then be blended with our present knowledge to produce an unbroken history of infectious diseases from deep antiquity to the present. Paleoecological integration of such data could help explain chronological changes, whose causes could be exploited for novel modern therapeutic or preventive control of the condition.

However, there are currently only three methodological tools that can be used in such searches: genetic variation, archeology, and biochemistry.

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