New world origin of canine distemper: Interdisciplinary insights

Elizabeth W. Uhl, Charles Kelderhouse, Jane Buikstra, Jeffrey P. Blick, Brad Bolon, Robert J. Hogan

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

32 Scopus citations


Objective: Canine distemper virus (CDV), human measles virus (HMV), and rinderpest virus (RPV) of cattle are morbilliviruses that have caused devastating outbreaks for centuries. This paper seeks to reconstruct the evolutionary history of CDV. Materials and methods: An interdisciplinary approach is adopted, synthesizing paleopathological analysis of 96 Pre-Columbian dogs (750–1470 CE) from the Weyanoke Old Town, Virginia site, with historical reports, molecular analysis and morbilliviral epidemiology. Results: Both measles (c.900CE) and rinderpest (c. 376 BCE) were first reported in Eurasia, while canine distemper was initially described in South America much later (1735 CE); there are no paleopathological indications of CDV in Weyanoke Old Town dogs. Molecularly, CDV is closely related to HMV, while viral codon usage indicates CDV may have previously infected humans; South American measles epidemics occurred prior to the emergence of canine distemper and would have facilitated HMV transmission and adaptation to dogs. Conclusions: The measles epidemics that decimated indigenous South American populations in the 1500–1700 s likely facilitated the establishment of CDV as a canine pathogen, which eventually spread to Europe and beyond. Significance: Understanding the historical and environmental conditions that have driven morbilliviral evolution provides important insights into potential future threats of animal/human cross-species infections. Limitations: Interpreting historical disease descriptions is difficult and the archaeological specimens are limited. Molecular sequence data and codon usage analyses rely on modern viruses. Suggestions for further research: Interdisciplinary approaches are increasingly needed to understand diseases of the past and present, as critical information and knowledge is scattered in different disciplines.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)266-278
Number of pages13
JournalInternational Journal of Paleopathology
StatePublished - Mar 2019


  • Canine distemper
  • Codon usage bias
  • History of disease
  • Human measles virus
  • Morbilliviral evolution
  • Rinderpest virus

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Pathology and Forensic Medicine
  • Archaeology


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