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London Black Death Skeletons Give Up New Clues About Plague

Image: London Black Death Skeletons Give Up New Clues About Plague

By Nick Sanchez   |  

Archeologists have come upon a cache of 25 skeletons they say offer new clues about the true nature of medieval Europe's Black Death plague while digging subway tunnels for London's new Crossrail.

According to The Guardian UK, it has long been taught that the Black Death was spread by the fleas on rats, however the skeletons point to a new theory of the epidemiology: the disease was airborne. That is to say that the rapid nature of its spread may preclude other, slower transmission factors such as fleas.

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"[Rats' fleas] as an explanation for the Black Death in its own right, it simply isn't good enough," said Dr. Tim Brooks, one of the scientists at Public Health England in Porton Down. "It cannot spread fast enough from one household to the next to cause the huge number of cases that we saw during the Black Death epidemics."

For the plague to have spread as quickly as it did, he theorizes, it must have been embedded in the lungs, then spread through coughs and sneezes. Because of this, it would be formally classified as a pneumonic plague (driven by respiratory infection) rather than a bubonic plague (driven by lymphatic infection).

The Black Death arrived in London in 1348 and over the following year killed nearly 6 in 10 across the city. Such a plague would result in the death of nearly 5 million if it were to take place today in London.

Scientists took teeth from 12 of the skeletons and submitted them to extensive DNA testing to discover that the plague bacterium, Yersinia pestis, was nearly an exact match with modern strains, some of which recently killed 60 people in Madagascar.

They also found that the skeletons were those of the city's poor. Rickets, anemia, rampant back injuries from hard labor, and malnutrition consistent with the Great Famine 30 years prior, suggest lives that were brutish and short.

Today, antibiotics help most infected patients recover if treated early, and scientists say the new skeletons will better humanity's understanding of epidemics and pandemics.

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Archeologists have come upon a cache of 25 skeletons they say offer new clues about the true nature of medieval Europe's Black Death plague while digging subway tunnels for London's new Crossrail.
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