How Old Is The Main Celiac Gene? (Pretty Old, Apparently)

Imagine having celiac disease in ancient Rome. Dea Picture Library/Getty Images

Imagine having celiac disease back before anyone knew what it was or how to treat it?

Yes, I know that could describe the state of modern medicine just a decade or two ago (and I can't tell you how glad I am that things are improving some on that front). But there's new evidence that celiac goes back way longer than that — as far as the first century A.D.

A study published in the World Journal of Gastroenterology looked at the remains of a young woman who lived around 50 to 100 A.D.

Her body was found in the excavation of Cosa, Italy, a Roman colony located in what is now know as Tuscany.

The young woman showed clinical signs of potential celiac-induced malnutrition, including short height, osteoporosis, dental enamel problems and cribra orbitalia, a bone defect that's a sign of anemia.

However, the researchers weren't certain these problems were, in fact, caused by celiac disease. Therefore, they decided to test her for the celiac disease genes, using DNA extracted from a bone sample and a tooth.

They found she carried the variant of HLA-DQ2 — specifically, DQ2.5 — that carries the highest risk for celiac disease in the population.

It's not clear whether the young woman actually had celiac -- there's no way to test her remains for villous atrophy. Nonetheless, the researchers noted that "this is the first report showing the presence of a HLA haplotype (i.e., gene) compatible for celiac disease in archaeological specimens."

Wheat, barley and oats (along with spelt and rye) played a major role in the Roman diet of the first century A.D. (a really major role, especially for the poorer Romans -- see this article on Roman Meals from's Expert on Ancient/Classical History for details that made me wince).

That grain-based diet, coupled with the fact that no one knew back then how profoundly diet could affect well-being, likely led to a miserable life and an early death for this young woman.


Gasbarrini G et al. Origin of celiac disease: how old are predisposing haplotypes? World Journal of Gastroenterology. 2012 Oct 7;18(37):5300-4.

Continue Reading