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Plague Was around for Millennia Before Epidemics Took Hold – And the Way People Lived Might Be What Protected Them

Plague Was around for Millennia Before Epidemics Took Hold – And the Way People Lived Might Be What Protected Them

Sonja Eliason, Bridget Alex

History, Americas

What happened to make plague able to cause devastating epidemics, as in this depiction from 1349?

One of civilization’s most prolific killers shadowed humans for thousands of years without their knowledge.

The bacteria Yersinia pestis, which causes the plague, is thought to be responsible for up to 200 million deaths across human history — more than twice the casualties of World War II.

The Y. pestis death toll comes from three widespread disease outbreaks, known as epidemics: the sixth century Justinianic Plague that ravaged the Eastern Roman Empire; the 14th century Black Death that killed somewhere between 40% and 60% of the European population; and the ongoing Third Pandemic, which began in China in the mid-19th century and currently afflicts thousands worldwide.

Scientists long assumed that the deadly disease began infecting humans just before the earliest epidemic, the Justinianic Plague.

But recent paleogenetics research reveals that plague has been with us for millennia longer: Ancient DNA (aDNA) from the bacteria was recovered from human skeletons as old as 4,900 years. This means people were contracting and dying from plague at least 3,000 years before there’s any archaeological or historical evidence for an epidemic.

Why didn’t these earlier infections lead to devastating outbreaks like the Black Death? It seems the answer is part biological — genetic mutations to the bacteria itself — and part cultural — changes to human lifestyles that encouraged the spread of the disease.

New Proof of Ancient Plague

To identify cases of ancient plague, researchers extract aDNA from a skeleton’s dental pulp chamber and search for genetic code from Y. pestis bacteria. If fossil teeth contain Y. pestis DNA, it’s safe to assume that person died from plague.

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