Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Tracing the spread of Black Death

Forget psychics. Here is an actual example of dead people providing information about the spread of Black Death in Europe. This information is coming from four 17th century nuns and two priests from different parts of France. It is also a good example of testing historical hypotheses. From Science (March 6, 2009):
Bubonic plague, which first broke out in Europe in 1347, killed some 75 million Europeans before it was brought under control in the early 19th century.

Archaeologists continue to unearth mass graves. Up till now, scientists have looked for the DNA of the plague organism, Yersinia pestis, to determine if people died of the plague. But the method is unreliable and in medical testing, it's recently been replaced by a cheaper, faster, and more accurate rapid diagnostic test (RDT) that reveals the presence of a protein specific to Y. pestis.

Anthropologist Raffaella Bianucci, working at Turin University in Italy, decided to apply the RDT to the remains of four 17th century nuns and two priests from different parts of France who, records show, took care of the poor and sick. Bianucci confirms in the March issue of the Journal of Archaeological Science that all were victims of the Black Death.

And more dead are waiting to speak (well..sort of):

"This is very important research," says mummy expert Bob Brier of Long Island University in Brookville, New York. There are conflicting views of how widespread the plague was in Europe. "Now we don't have to rely just on historical sources" to trace its pathways, he says. Bianucci plans to use the test at more sites. Next up will be Lazzaretto Vecchio, the plague infirmary founded on an island in Venice, Italy, in 1403, where 1500 skeletons await their checkup.


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