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600-year-old skeletons reveal mysteries of the Black Death

Wikimedia Commons
Illustration of the Black Death from the Toggenburg Bible (1411)

Last year, 25 skeletons were unearthed in the Farringdon area of London during construction of a new rail line. They had been found buried in neat but coffin-less rows at three different depths.

On Sunday, archeologists told the British press what was suspected from the start: The skeletons are those of victims of several Black Death pandemics that swept across Britain and the rest of Europe during the 14th and 15th centuries. DNA tests on the skeleton’s teeth had revealed the presence of Yersina pestis, the bacterium responsible for the Black Death.

The scientists believe that the site where the skeletons were found was likely a long-lost mass graveyard for many of the tens of thousands of Londoners who died from the highly contagious and deadly disease. During the 14th and 15th centuries, the site would have been an open field, outside the city itself. Carbon dating of the skeletons indicated that the bodies had been buried at three separate periods, each of which coincided with a Black Death outbreak.

It’s estimated that London lost a staggering 60 percent of its population during the first and most devastating of those pandemics, which occurred in 1348-1349. The second and third waves occurred in 1361 and in 1433-1435.

Pneumonic, not bubonic

Researchers with Public Health England, a government-funded agency that also participated in studying the skeletons, told reporters that one of the long-held beliefs about the Black Death may not be accurate. After reviewing the wills that were widely registered in London during the plague years, the researchers came to the conclusion that the disease had spread too quickly and virulently to be a bubonic plague, an infection of the lymphatic system that is spread by the bites of the fleas of infected rats. They now believe it was primarily a pneumonic plague, an infection of the respiratory system that is spread from human to human by the inhalation of infected droplets of phlegm.

The rat-flea explanation “simply isn’t good enough,” one of the researchers told the Guardian newspaper. “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.”

This hypothesis is interesting, given the results of a study published earlier this year that found that the Justinian Plague of the 6th century was also caused by a strain of Y. pestis.  As I reported here in January, that strain appears to have died out, whereas the one responsible for the Black Death in the 14th and 15th centuries reemerged in Asia in the mid-19th century, causing what is known as the Third Pandemic, which reappeared in waves until the 1950s.

Those researchers said their findings suggest “that several Y. pestis lineages, which are currently ecologically established in rodent foci worldwide, remain capable of emerging and igniting epidemics of plague in human beings, as they have repeatedly in the past.”

The World Health Organization still reports occasional outbreaks of new strains of the plague. Fortunately, antibiotics have made it possible to contain the disease.

An already weakened population

According to the BBC, the various tests done on the Farringdon skeletons’ bones and teeth revealed some other intriguing findings:

  • Many of the skeletons appear to suffer signs of malnutrition, and 16% had rickets.
  • There is a high rate of back damage and strain indicating heavy manual labour.
  • The later skeletons from the 1400s had a high rate of upper body injury consistent with being involved in violent altercations.
  • 13 of the skeletons were male, three female, two children, the gender was undetermined in the other seven skeletons.
  • 40% grew up outside London, possibly as far north as Scotland — showing that 14th Century London attracted people from across Britain just as it does today.

These findings suggest that the Black Death found a population that was already weakened by malnutrition and hard labor, say the scientists.

Archeologists plan to continue excavating the site in Farringdon to see how far the mass cemetary extends.

A documentary about the Farringdon skeletons and the Black Death will be shown this weekend on Britain’s Channel 4.

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