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Plague in London 1665 (symbolic image)

Photo: Fine Art Images / Heritage Images / IMAGO

Death came in waves, and the plague cost the lives of many millions in human history. Now, researchers have identified three 4000,<>-year-old British cases of Yersinia pestis, the bacterium that causes the plague – the oldest evidence of the plague in Britain to date. The results were published in the journal Nature Communications.

The scientists found the bacterium in human remains. They took skeletal samples from a mass grave in Charterhouse Warren in Somerset and in Levens in Cumbria, skeletal samples from a total of 34 people. The site of Charterhouse Warren differs from other burial sites from the time: the researchers suspect that the mass burial is not due to an outbreak of the plague, but that the people were infected at the time of their death.

Pathogen identified in teeth

Information about the presence of Yersinia pestis should be provided by the teeth. For this purpose, the scientists took dental pulp, which may contain DNA residues from infectious diseases. And indeed, the researchers identified the bacterium in three cases. These are two children, estimated to be between ten and twelve years old at the time of their death, and a woman between the ages of 35 and 45. It is said that people probably lived at about the same time.

"The ability to detect ancient pathogens from degraded samples from thousands of years ago is incredible," said first author Pooja Swali, according to a statement. "These genomes can tell us about the spread and evolutionary changes of pathogens in the past and hopefully help us understand which genes are important for the spread of infectious diseases."

Although the plague had already been detected in several people in Eurasia between 5000 and 2500 years ago, it had not yet occurred in Great Britain at that time, it is said. The wide geographical spread suggests that this strain of plague may have been easily transmitted, the researchers said. It is said that it was probably introduced to Central and Western Europe around 4800 years ago by people who spread to Eurasia. The results would now indicate that the plague strain also reached Great Britain.

The pathogen is most often transmitted by fleas that live on rats, marmots or other wild animals. If a person is bitten by an infected flea, symptoms similar to those of severe flu appear after up to seven days, then lymph nodes, for example, can swell into large bumps. If left untreated, the disease can be fatal.