A genetic study led by a Danish team at the Technical University of Denmark showed that Yersinia pestis also known as the plague has been around for a much longer time than previously assumed. Researchers reported that their experiments dated back the disease’s emergence 3,000 years earlier.
The team based its experiments on tooth DNA collected from about 100 ancient individuals excavated by archeologists and preserved in world’s museums. In some cases, they found DNA traces on the teeth. Only seven people had the disease. One sample was dated back to 2794 B.C., while the latest sample was dated back to 951 B.C.
Past samples revealed that the disease affected humans in the last 1,500 years only. But the recently analyzed samples suggest that plague may be much older. About 3,000 year older than previously thought.
If the findings are correct, historians may finally have an explanation to the mysterious outbreaks that decimated the Roman Army and ended ancient Greece’s Classical period. The recent experiments also may help researchers better understand how the plague spread and how it would evolve in the coming years.
Plague is a highly infectious disease which meant certain death in times when antibiotics were not available. It is also the first biological weapon ever used by humans. Some records report that Mongols catapulted dead bodies infected with plague over the walls of a city they were besieging in 1346.
The bacteria can get from one person to another or from flies or rats. The Great Plague between the 14th and 17th centuries exterminated half of Europe’s population. The most recent plague was recorded in China in the 19th century. The epidemic later spread to Africa, Europe, Australia and the two Americas.
Historians suspect that the Justinianic Plague, which led to the death of over 100 million people ended the Roman Empire.
But there was a plague in Athens, as well, about 2,500 years ago, which ended the Classical Greek civilization. In the second century, another plague wreaked havoc among Roman soldiers. But these two epidemics may or may have not been caused by plague. Yet, the recent study suggests that the plague has been around for a much longer time, so they might also be counted as cases of plague.
DNA samples revealed that 4,800 years ago people had the bacteria, and may have died from it. If this is the case, the disease may have shaped human history in more ways than we previously thought.
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