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Post Evidence of Plague Discovered in Ancient Mediterranean Remains
Created by John Eipper on 08/30/22 7:49 AM

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Evidence of Plague Discovered in Ancient Mediterranean Remains (Consoly Leon Arias, Spain / Canary, 08/30/22 7:49 am)

Thousands of years ago, throughout the Eastern Mediterranean, several Bronze Age civilizations declined at the same time.

Ancient Egypt and the Akkadian Empire collapsed, and there was a widespread social crisis throughout the Ancient Near East and the Aegean, which manifested itself in the population decline, destruction, reduced trade, and major cultural changes.

As always, climate change and shifting allegiances have been pointed to. But scientists have just found a new culprit through analyzing ancient human remains.

In remains excavated from an ancient cemetery in Crete, in a cave called Hagios Charalambos, a team led by archaeogeneticist Gunnar Neumann of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany has found genetic evidence of the bacteria responsible for two of the most important diseases in history: typhoid fever and plague. According to the researchers, it cannot be ruled out that widespread diseases caused by these pathogens were a contributing factor to the massive social changes between 2200 and 2000 BC.           

"The emergence of these two virulent pathogens at the end of the early Minoan period on Crete," they wrote in their paper, "emphasizes the need to reintroduce infectious diseases as an additional factor that possibly contributed to the transformation of early complex societies in the Aegean and beyond."

Yersinia pestis is a bacterium responsible for tens of millions of deaths, most of which occurred in the course of three devastating global pandemics. As catastrophic as this disease was in centuries past, its impact prior to the Justinian plague, which began in 541 CE, has been difficult to estimate. Recent technological and scientific advances, particularly the recovery and sequencing of ancient DNA from old bones, are revealing some of that lost history.

It is now suspected, for example, that bacteria have been infecting people since at least Neolithic times.  In 2021, scientists revealed that a Stone Age hunter-gatherer probably died of plague thousands of years before we had evidence of the disease reaching epidemic proportions. However, the genomic evidence recovered so far came from colder regions. Little is known about its impact on ancient societies in warmer climates, such as those in the eastern Mediterranean, due to DNA degradation at higher temperatures. So Neumann and his team set about investigating bones recovered from a site in Crete, known for its remarkably cold and stable conditions. 

They recovered DNA from the teeth of 32 individuals who died between 2290 and 1909 BCE. The genetic data revealed the presence of quite a few common oral bacteria, which was expected.

Less expected was the presence of Y. Pestis in two individuals and of two lineages of Salmonella enterica, a bacterium typically responsible for typhoid fever, in two others. This discovery suggests that both pathogens were present and possibly transmissible in Bronze Age Crete. But there is a caveat. Each of the lineages discovered is now extinct, making it more difficult to determine how their infections might have affected communities.    

The lineage of Y. Pestis which they discovered probably could not be transmitted by fleas, one of the traits that made other lineages of the bacterium so contagious in human populations.             

The flea vector carries the bubonic version of the plague, and humans become infected when the bacterium enters the lymphatic system through the bite of a flea.

Therefore, the transmission route of this ancient form of the bacterium could be different and cause a different form of plague; pneumonic plague, which is transmitted through aerosols, for example.            

Finally, although the researchers believe it is unlikely that Y. pestis or S. enterica were solely responsible for the social changes observed in the Mediterranean at the end of the third millennium BCE, infectious diseases should be considered as an additional contributing factor, possibly in an interaction with climate and migration. Probably a detailed genetic analysis of more remains found in the eastern Mediterranean could help us to discover the extent of the impact that these diseases had on the civilizations that lived there.

JE comments:  Interesting.  Pandemics have certainly been around as long as there have been civilizations and their concomitant concentrations of people.  Three years ago, the discovery on Crete would have been little more than a curiosity for specialists.  Now the entire world takes pandemics very seriously.  They can literally destroy societies.

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