WSU scientists use ancient teeth, fleas in 'Black Death' study

"What we did know - based largely on the writings of Byzantine scholar Procopius in 542 AD - is that a disease tore through Europe with ferocity. Though Procopius described dark swelling at the neck, groin and armpits of victims - suggestive of bubonic plague - smallpox and influenza have also been considered.

"By reconstructing DNA from the teeth of two corpses buried in Bavaria, Germany, the group concluded that the Justinian plague and the better-known Black Death, which came 800 years later, were caused by different strains of Y. pestis.

"Both were transmitted to humans by fleas that had bitten infected rodents, primarily rats.

"One mystery yet to be solved: Why did the Justinian plague disappear while a new one emerged and persists to this day?  The Lancet study’s authors speculate that humans’ immune systems became less susceptible to the bacterium or that a climatic shift made the environment less suitable for it to survive.

"Meanwhile, the modern day strain continues to circulate, with its most effective mode of transmission the bite of a tiny flea." 

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My understanding is that there was another plague before that starting about 180CE (at the death of Emperor Marcus Aurelius) that lasted about 100-120 years.  It has been judged as something unlike bubonic, but its actual medical attributes and genesis are still in dispute. 


I think they picked it up when Marcus' brother and co-emperor went east to quell an uprising against the Roman Empire. It's a tragedy this horrible disease is still around.

Rats and disease certainly have taken their toll on health over the centuries. 

"The Antonine Plague of 165–180 AD—also known as the Plague of Galen, who described it—was an ancient pandemic brought back to the Roman Empire by troops returning from campaigns in the Near East. It has been suspected to have been either smallpox[1] or measles,[2] but the true cause remains undetermined. The epidemic may have claimed the life of Roman emperor Lucius Verus, who died in 169 and was the co-regent of Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, whose family name, Antoninus, was given to the epidemic. The disease broke out again nine years later, according to the Roman historian Dio Cassius, and caused up to 2,000 deaths a day in Rome, one quarter of those infected.[3] Total deaths have been estimated at five million.[4] The disease killed as much as one-third of the population in some areas and devastated the Roman army.[5]

"Ancient sources agree that the epidemic appeared first during the Roman siege of Seleucia in the winter of 165–166.[6] Ammianus Marcellinus reports that the plague spread to Gaul and the legions along the RhineEutropius asserts that a large population died throughout the Empire.[7]

"Galen's observations and description of the epidemic in the treatise Methodus Medendi is brief, and his other references to it are scattered among his voluminous writings. He describes the plague as "great" and of long duration and mentions feverdiarrhea, and pharyngitis, as well as a skin eruption—sometimes dry and sometimes pustular—appearing on the ninth day of the illness. The information provided by Galen does not clearly define the nature of the disease, but scholars have generally preferred to diagnose it as smallpox.[8]

"Historian William McNeill asserts that the Antonine Plague and the later Plague of Cyprian (251–ca.270) were outbreaks of two different diseases, one of smallpox and one of measles, although not necessarily in that order. The severe devastation to the European population from the two plagues may indicate that people had no previous exposure to either disease, which brought immunity to survivors. Other historians believe that both outbreaks were of smallpox.[9] This latter view seems more likely to be correct given that molecular estimates place the evolution of measles sometime after 500 AD.[10]"

Hrmmmm... the History Channel said it was something like Black Plague. I was more focused on learning about Marcus so I may have gotten that part wrong. Can't trust everything the Television God says.

Your comment struck my curiosity cord, and I went hunting for information. I have no idea if Wiki has accurate information, but at least that is what I found. Imagine the numbers of people who died, "2,000 deaths a day in Rome" and "Total deaths have been estimated at five million"! The misery must have been awful. 

Indeed. I can't imagine what it would have been like to live during that time period. I would worry about all of my loved ones and friends.

Marcus Aurelius was a stoic and I think the losses he suffered, his brother, his children, during that time had a reinforcing affect on his philosophy. It also probably lead to his decision to make his own natural born son his heir, Commodus, which was against tradition. (Marcus and his brother were adopted.) That was the same antagonist emperor in Gladiator. (But I wouldn't take that movie as an accurate account of history.)

Imagine what a terrible effect if would have on our society if we faced such a widespread disease. Just a shift in our economic balance or new gadget shifts our living narrative in fundamental ways. If we got struck by a civilization killer I don't know what would happen.

Joan that's an interesting article.  

Joan, I know I mostly just lurk, but I wanted to say that I really enjoy these science updates you post.  :)

Humble Pie, I am glad you enjoy science articles. Indeed, you are not lurking!




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