Bacteria confirmed as culprit in Black Death
Tuesday 12 October 2010
Anthropologists said on Friday they had confirmed long-running suspicions that a germ called Yersinia pestis caused the plague that wiped out an estimated third of Europe's population in the Middle Ages.
Teeth and bones sampled from 76 skeletons found in "plague pits" in France, Germany, Italy and the Netherlands and sequenced for DNA intrusion are conclusive evidence that Y. pestis was to blame, they said.
Y. pestis has been in the dock for more than a century as the source of so-called Black Death, which gripped Europe in successive outbreaks from the 14th to the 18th century.
But scientific data to convict the bacterium have until now been sketchy or debatable.
As a result, a clutch of rival theories have blossomed, including the contention that an Ebola-style virus or the anthrax germ were to blame.
The study, published in the open-access journal PLoS Pathogens, also sheds unexpected light on the geographical route taken by the germ, which is believed to have originated in central or southern Asia before arriving in Europe through trade.
"The history of this pandemic is much more complicated than we had previously thought," said Stephanie Haensch, a co-leader of the research, at Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz, Germany.
In samples where Y. pestis genes were found, the researchers ran a test for 20 DNA markers to identify a particular bacterial strain.
They wanted to see if there was a match for either of two types of Y. pestis that are still knocking around the world today, in parts of Africa, America, the Middle East and in the former Soviet Union.
But neither of these modern types, known as Orientalis and Medievalis, showed up.
Instead, two unknown types were found, both of them older than today's strains and different from each other.
The map of Y. pestis' death march in Western Europe starts in November 1347, presumably driven by fleas living on rats which crept onland from a merchant ship docked at the Mediterranean French port of Marseille.
Over the next six years, it then spread through western France to northern France and then over to England, again through commerce.
However, a different strain was found in a mass grave in Bergen op Zoom, a port in the southern Netherlands.
This suggests Y. pestis also entered Europe from the north, perhaps from Norway and via Friesland, a northern Dutch province.
After the initial surge from 1347, the pandemic progressively spread around the continent, inflicting a toll that had massive social and political repercussions.
"Our findings indicate that the plague travelled to Europe over at least two channels, which then went their separate ways," said fellow investigator Barbara Bramanti.
elephant appealThe first 23 lots in our charity auction have now gone. But there are 22 more still up for grabs
From rainforests and reefs to beaches and boat trips
The Silicon Valley awards which treat scientists like rockstars
comedy'Fresh Meat' star sees off stiff competition from Alan Carr, David Mitchell, Graham Norton, Lee Mack and Sarah Millican to win top prize
Life & Style blogs
The 50 Best Christmas Gifts for Women
Foodini: the £835 machine that 'prints' food in your kitchen
Physicists discover 'clearest evidence yet' that the Universe is a hologram
In pictures: Christmas in London through the ages
Pirate Bay sets sail for Ascension Island after SX domain name seized by authorities
- 1 Italian court annuls prison sentence for elderly paedophile after 11-year-old victim tells investigators in Catanzaro that she loves him
- 2 Australia incest case: Deformed children found in remote farming community after generations of inbreeding
- 3 Woman who miscarried in private prison 'made to clean up after herself,' court told
- 4 Physicists discover 'clearest evidence yet' that the Universe is a hologram
- 5 Fox News presenter tells viewers it is a 'fact' that both Jesus and Santa Claus are white
- < Previous
- Next >
£24000 - £24250 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client is curr...
£800 - £875 per day: Harrington Starr: Programme Manager, (OTC Trading, CMMI, ...
£85 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Chester: Year 3/4 teacher (2 terms)Rand...
£85 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Chester: KS2 Primary TeacherRandstad Ed...