Earliest Evidence of Plague in Britain - Discovered in 4,000-Year-Old Teeth

Researchers have uncovered the earliest known evidence of the plague in Britain, with DNA found in human teeth dating back 4,000 years. The finding sheds light on the spread of the plague-causing bacteria, Yersinia pestis, and its ability to migrate across vast distances. This discovery is not surprising considering the existing connections between Britain and continental Europe during that time.

The Spread of Y. pestis:

The study reveals that the lineage of Y. pestis found in Britain was highly contagious. The bacteria were discovered in teeth from two separate locations in England, indicating widespread transmission. This suggests a rapid movement of people, technologies, and ideas across the region during this period.

Transmission and Forms of Plague:

The plague can be contracted through flea bites, infectious cough droplets, or contact with body fluids or tissues of infected animals. Flea bites cause the bubonic form, while human-to-human transmission leads to the pneumonic form.  The 14th-century pandemic, which killed a significant portion of Europe's population, was triggered by the bubonic plague. Interestingly, the bacterial DNA from the study lacked a gene involved in flea-borne transmission, distinguishing it from the 14th-century strain.

The Study's Findings:

The researchers examined the teeth of 34 individuals from the early Bronze Age in Britain. Two individuals from the Charterhouse Warren site, aged around 10 and 12, and a 35- to 45-year-old woman from the Levens Park site, were found to have the bacterium in their teeth. The bacterial strain closely matched one previously identified in Germany from the same time period.

Severity of the Disease:

The analysis conducted cannot determine the severity of the disease caused by the bacteria. While the temptation is to imagine a scenario similar to the apocalyptic Medieval Black Death, the evidence does not support such conclusions. The researchers caution against theorizing without sufficient evidence. Additionally, in the case of the Charterhouse Warren mass burial site, it is unlikely that the individuals died from the plague, as their remains displayed signs of trauma prior to death.

Implications and Conclusion:

The discovery of plague DNA in 4,000-year-old teeth provides valuable insights into the historical spread of the disease. The presence of the plague-causing bacteria in Britain during this period, along with its contagious nature, highlights the interconnectedness of populations and the exchange of knowledge and goods across regions. Further research may uncover additional evidence of the plague in other examined remains, shedding more light on its impact and the responses of communities during that time.

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