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Cute gerbils, not rats, to blame for the plague

Rats may have been blamed because there wasn’t a word for gerbil

Andrew Griffin
Tuesday 24 February 2015 13:09 GMT
Gerbils brought the bacteria with them from Asia, along the Silk Road, according to the new research
Gerbils brought the bacteria with them from Asia, along the Silk Road, according to the new research

Rats may have been unfairly blamed for European outbreaks of the bubonic plague, according to new research.

The Black Death was in fact brought to the continent by Asian gerbils, scientists at the University of Oslo claim. The discovery could mean the history of the disease needs to be rewritten, according to those leading the study.

The plague arrived from Asia in the 14th century, becoming one of the biggest causes of death for the next 400 years. Black rats were long blamed for the outbreaks, carrying the plague which was thought to be passed on to fleas that then jumped on to humans.

But studies of historical weather patterns – worked out through researching tree rings – indicate that the outbreaks tended to happen when there was warm and wet weather in Asia and not in Europe.

That seems to imply that the plague began in Asia, and was carried by gerbils down the Silk Road and into Europe.

"Such conditions are good for gerbils. It means a high gerbil population across huge areas and that is good for the plague," professor Nils Christian Stenseth, who led the study at the University of Oslo, told the BBC.

Scientists will now study the DNA of plague bacteria that can be found in ancient skeletons of people who died from the disease. The scientists would expect a large amount of variation if their theory is correct, since the disease would have been likely to have changed each time it was carried into Europe.

Rats may have taken the blame because the big gerbils that came from Asia were also known by that name.

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