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SKELETON'S SECRET: Humans, not rats, spread the Black Death

By Catholic Online (NEWS CONSORTIUM)
4/1/2014 (3 years ago)
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

Scientists examine evidence from medieval times to recent outbreak in Madagascar

The Black Death in the 14th Century was the most devastating pandemic in human history. Untold millions died from the rapidly spread disease. For centuries, the plague had been blamed on rodents, whose fleas carried bubonic plague. However, 25 skeletons discovered by railway engineers beneath London suggest the Black Death was even more lethal than previously thought.

The skeletons, by and large, were poor people. Many of the skeletons showed signs of malnutrition consistent with the 'Great Famine' that struck Europe 30 years before the Black Death.

The skeletons, by and large, were poor people. Many of the skeletons showed signs of malnutrition consistent with the "Great Famine" that struck Europe 30 years before the Black Death.

Highlights

By Catholic Online (NEWS CONSORTIUM)
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)
4/1/2014 (3 years ago)

Published in Europe

Keywords: Bubonic plague, skeletons, United Kingdom


LOS ANGELES, ca (Catholic Online) - After analyzing the teeth of the corpses, scientists believe the bubonic plague mutated into a more virulent strain that passed easily from human to human.

The "pneumonic" form of plague infected the lungs of sufferers. The disease could be easily spread by merely coughing. In medieval Europe's crowded, packed cities this proved to be unavoidable. It also had a much lower survival rate and could kill within 24 hours.

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It's estimated that the lives of around 75 million people were claimed by the plague in the 14th century. The researchers say only the more contagious strain can explain why so many died.

In the new BBC documentary, "Secret History: Return of the Black Death," the telecast will focus on the Crossrail project where 25 skeletons were discovered while workers dug 26 miles of tunnels beneath the capital.

Discovered close to Smithfield Market last year, the skeletons were found in neat rows on two levels sealed under a layer of clay. Thousands of bodies are thought to have been interred at an emergency burial site there.

Teeth from 12 of the skeletons were sent for analysis and four tested positive for Yersinia pestis, the deadly bacteria responsible for both bubonic and pneumonic plague. Researchers concluded that the bubonic strain could not have had the devastating impact seen during the Black Death.

"As an explanation for the Black Death in its own right, [bubonic plague is] simply not good enough," Dr. Tim Brooks, an expert in infectious diseases at Public Health England, said.

"It cannot spread fast enough from one household to the next to cause the huge number of cases that we saw during the Black Death epidemics."

"In a small number of people the organism will spread to their lungs and they will then develop a pneumonia. It is that critical switch, that if there were enough people in contact with "hem, that allows it to spread as a pneumonic plague.'

Fellow researcher Don Walker, of the Museum of London Archaeology, said the pneumonic form was "more lethal," adding, that "There was no chance of recovery."

Archaeologists, historians, microbiologists and physicists worked together to apply techniques from several scientific disciplines to the discovery.

The skeletons, by and large, were poor people. Many of the skeletons showed signs of malnutrition consistent with the "Great Famine" that struck Europe 30 years before the Black Death. Many had back injuries suggesting lives of hard labor.

Archaeologists were surprised to discover that the skeletons lay in layers and appeared to come from three different periods: the original Black Death epidemic in 1348-1350, and later outbreaks in 1361 and the early 15th century.

"It suggests that the burial ground was used again and again for the burial of plague victims," Jay Carver, Crossrail's lead archaeologist says.

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