Examination of the teeth of corpses of recently discovered victims of the bubonic plague has revealed that the bacterial disease which ravage Europe appears to have been more pneumonic in nature than has previously been thought. That means that humans were the culprits in the rapid spread of the Black Death as much as fleas were.
While fleas likely were involved in the outbreak that wiped out possibly over half of Europe’s population during the 14th century, osteologist Don Walker’s recent research has pointed more towards humans as being the main reason why the plague spread as rapidly as it did.
Three layers of graves were discovered under London’s Charterhouse Square due to the Crossrail expansion of London’s subway system. When Don Walker, an osteologist working with the Museum of London, examined the molar teeth of the victims, he learned a great deal about their lives both prior to their contracting the plague, and how they ended up becoming victims of it. In doing so, it’s likely that history books will have to be rewritten, and rats and fleas will have their roles in contributing to the Black Death greatly reduced.
For instance, Walker learned from the teeth of one of the 25 individuals examined so far that he was breast-fed as a baby, suffered from bad tooth decay as a child, moved to London from another part of England, and was a member of the working-class before he contracted the Black Plague and died in early adulthood.
The cemetery that was discovered is located outside of the walls of medieval London. Charterhouse Square was once the home of a monastery, and at least one of the corpses that have been studied thus far appears to have been a monk. This is the theory that Walker has suggested, as the man became a vegetarian later in his life, like the rest of the order of Carthusian monks who resided at the monastery.
Walker and the other scientists involved took one tooth from each of 12 of the skeletons they examined, and had the DNA that was extracted analyzed. They discovered that the plague bacterium Yersinia pestis was present in several of the teeth, which meant that the people were exposed to, and probably died from, the bubonic plague.
The corpses showed signs of having been malnourished, and that they had been poor. Thirty years before the Black Death struck Europe, the land was devastated by the “Great Famine.” That set up the perfect storm, weakening the immune systems of the population and setting them up to die in the millions as the Black Death spread across Europe.
The layers of the skeletons, the archaeologists discovered, represented three distinct periods when the Black Death flourished in Europe. The first layer included the bodies of victims from the original Black Death outbreak between 1348-50. The skeletons of the other two layers were composed of victims of an outbreak in 1361 and another one that didn’t occur until the early 15th century.
The original outbreak of the Black Death was likely caused, initially, by rats harboring fleas contaminated by the plague bacterium Yersinia pestis. Approximately 75 million people died from the Black Death.
The later skeletons, which have more upper-body injuries, appear to suggest a period when England was undergoing a social breakdown and lawlessness reigned, and most of the victims of so far discovered in these layers appear to be people who were from the lower classes, and who were poor.
Crossroads archaeologist, Jay Carver, has said that there will be a new dig this coming summer. According to Carver, the number of bodies in the three layers will probably be in somewhere in the “low thousands.” Carver also stated that historical documents indicated that “the burial ground was established for poor strangers.”
Despite the fact that most people who receive antibiotics early enough will recover from it, thousands of people each year are still falling victim to the Black Plague.
Was the Black Death deadlier in the 14th century than it is today?
When scientists compared the DNA of plague bacteria taken from the 25 skeletons the DNA samples from a 2012 outbreak in Madagascar which killed 60 people, out of the 256 it had infected, they discovered that the DNA codes were an almost perfect match.
The original bubonic plague would not have been as devastating as it was, if antibiotics had been available then and they were treated early enough. Also, the Black Death of the 14th century wasn’t any more deadly than the cases of plague that occur today.
Also, the Black Plague would not have spread so quickly and killed as many people as it had if it was solely spread by fleas on rats. The Black Plague would have had to have been spread by another source — people. It was likely spread through the air by other people who had already caught the disease, through their coughing, sneezing, and bodily fluids, according to scientists at Public Health England.
In other words, the plague was actually a pneumatic plague, or became one, though the original cases were of the bubonic plague. The main difference between the two, other than the symptoms, is the location in the body where the plague manifests itself. With the Black Plague, the symptoms include the victim having buboes, or large swollen areas under the armpits and between the legs, while the pneumonic version affects the lungs of the victims and causes them to cough up blood.
Previously, it had been thought that the pneumonic plague was rarer than the bubonic version. That might not be the reality of it, though, if the theory that the plague became a pneumonic one is proven true by further research.
According to Dr. Tim Brooks from Porton Down, who will further explain his theory in a Channel 4 documentary Secret History: The Return of the Black Death, which will be broadcast next Sunday in England, the plague must have been air-borne, in order for it to be both as fast-acting and also spread as rapidly as it did.
Fleas from rats wouldn’t have been able to spread the disease “fast enough from one household to the next,” according to Dr. Brooks. The documentary will be one which anyone who is interested in learning more about the Black Death will find fascinating to watch.
The cemetery found under London’s Charterhouse Square might hold the secret as to how the bubonic plague spread so quickly and killed so many people, if further research proves that the plague became airborne, and settled in the lungs of its victims.
The Black Death would have spread more rapidly, through the sneezing and coughing of the victims, from person to person, than it could have if spread solely by the fleas from rats. Perhaps in the future, books will be re-written and the role that humans played in spreading the disease will be highlighted, rather than fleas being blamed for it all.
Written by: Douglas Cobb