A new study suggests that people who survived the medieval mass-killing plague known as the Black Death lived significantly longer and were healthier than people who lived before the epidemic struck in 1347.
Caused by the bacteria Yersinia pestis, the Black Death wiped out 30 percent of Europeans and nearly half of Londoners during its initial four-year wave from 1347 1351.
Released Wednesday (May 7) in the journal PLOS ONE, the study by University of South Carolina anthropologist Sharon DeWitte provides the first look at how the plague, called bubonic plague today, shaped population demographics and health for generations.
The findings have important implications for understanding emerging diseases and how they impact the health of individuals and populations of people.
"Knowing how strongly diseases can actually shape human biology can give us tools to work with in the future to understand disease and how it might affect us," DeWitte says.
She says the Black Death was a single iteration of a disease that has affected humans since at least the 6th century Plague of Justinian.
"Genetic analysis of 14th century Y. pestis has not revealed significant functional differences in the ancient and modern strains," DeWitte says. "This suggests that we need to consider other factors such as the characteristics of humans in order to understand changes in the disease over time."
To better understand those human factors DeWitte has spent the last decade examining the skeletal remains of more 1,000 men, women and children who lived before, during and after the Black Death. The skeletons, maintained in the archives of the Museum of London, were excavated from a handful of well-documented London cemeteries, including St. Mary Spital, Guildhall Yard, St. Nicholas Shambles and St. Mary Graces.
The skeletons are catalogued in 3-foot by 1-foot boxes. As she studies each skeleton,
|Contact: Peggy Binette|
University of South Carolina