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Bubonic Plague Traced To Ancient Egypt (Black Death)
National Geographic News ^ | 3-10-2004 | Cameron Walker

Posted on 03/11/2004 3:40:50 PM PST by blam

Bubonic Plague Traced to Ancient Egypt

Cameron Walker
for National Geographic News
March 10, 2004

The bubonic plague, or Black Death, may have originated in ancient Egypt, according to a new study. "This is the first time the plague's origins in Egypt have been backed up by archaeological evidence," said Eva Panagiotakopulu, who made the discovery. Panagiotakopulu is an archaeologist and fossil-insect expert at the University of Sheffield, England.

King Tutankhamun lies in his burial chamber in the Valley of the Kings, Egypt. Some researchers now believe that the bubonic plague, or Black Death, originated in the village where builders of Tutankhamun's tomb lived.

Photograph by Victor R. Boswell, Jr., copyright National Geographic Society

While most researchers consider central Asia as the birthplace of the deadly epidemic, the new study—published recently in the Journal of Biogeography—suggests an alternate starting point.

"It's usually thought that the plague entered from the East," said B. Joseph Hinnebusch, a microbiologist at Rocky Mountain Laboratories in Hamilton, Montana. The new study suggests that North Africa could also be the source of the epidemic, he said.

The bacteria-caused plague is more than a grim historical footnote today. The African island of Madagascar experienced outbreaks in the late 1990s, and some worry about the plague's potential use as an agent of bioterrorism.

Information about past epidemics could help scientists predict where new outbreaks would occur and better understand how the disease spreads, Hinnebusch said.

Plague in Europe

The most famous plague outbreak swept through Europe in the 1300s. Dubbed the Black Death, the disease killed more than 25 million people—one-fourth of the continent's population. The nursery rhyme "Ring Around the Rosy" is traced to the plague's rose-colored lesions and deadly spread.

Earlier outbreaks also decimated Europe. The Justinian Plague claimed as many as a hundred million lives in the Byzantine Empire during the sixth century A.D.

The bacterium that causes bubonic plague, Yersinia pestis, lives inside the gut of its main carrier, the flea. The plague likely spread to Europe on the backs of shipboard black rats that carried plague-infested fleas.

"It's the plague's unholy trinity," said Michael Antolin, a biologist at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, who studies bubonic plague in black-tailed prairie dogs.

Inside the flea, bacteria multiply and block off the flea's throat-like area. The flea gets increasingly hungry. When it bites—whether rat or human—it spits some bacteria out into the bite wound.

People can contract several forms of the plague. The main form, bubonic, often starts out with fever, chills, and enlarged lymph nodes. But if the bacteria make their way into the lungs, a deadlier form, called pneumonic plague, can be spread from person to person. Pneumonic plague occurs in about 5 percent of those infected with bubonic plague.

Several researchers have suggested that Europe's Black Death spread too fast and killed too many to be attributed to bubonic plague. But plague experts Hinnebusch and Antolin said that the pneumonic plague form could have been responsible for the quick-spreading epidemic.

"If you inhale it, you're pretty much dead," Antolin said.

Pharaohs' Plague

Panagiotakopulu came upon clues to the plague's presence in ancient Egypt by accident. She had been looking at fossil insect remains to learn about daily life more than 3,000 years ago.

"People lived close to their domestic animals and to the pests that infected their household," Panagiotakopulu said. "I just started looking at what diseases people might have, what diseases their pigs might have, and what diseases might have been passed from other animals to humans."

The researcher used a fine sieve to strain out remains of insects and small mammals from several sites. Panagiotakopulu, who is conducting similar work on Viking ruins in Greenland, said that looking at insects is a key way to reconstruct the past. "I can learn about how people lived by looking in their homes and at what was living with and on them," she said.

In Egypt Panagiotakopulu combed the workers'-village site in Amarna, where the builders of the tombs of Egyptian kings Tutankhamun and Akhenaton lived. There, the researcher unearthed cat and human fleas—known to be plague carriers in some cases—in and around the workers' homes. That find spurred Panagiotakopulu to believe that the bubonic plague's fleaborne bacteria could also have been lurking in the area, so she went in search of other clues.

Previous excavations along the Nile Delta had turned up Nile rats, an endemic species, dating to the 16th and 17th century B.C. The plague's main carrier flea is thought to be native to the Nile Valley and is known to be a Nile rat parasite.

According to Panagiotakopulu, the Nile provided an ideal spot for rats to carry the plague into urban communities. Around 3500 B.C., people began to build cities next to the Nile. During floods, the habitat of the Nile rat was disturbed, sending the rodent—and its flea and bacterial hitchhikers—into the human domain.

Egyptian writings from a similar time period point to an epidemic disease with symptoms similar to the plague. A 1500 B.C. medical text known as the Ebers Papyrus identifies a disease that "has produced a bubo, and the pus has petrified, the disease has hit."

It's possible that trade spread the disease to black rats, which then carried the bacteria to other sites of plague epidemics. Panagiotakopulu suspects that black rats, endemic to India, arrived in Egypt with sea trade. In Egypt the rats picked up plague-carrying fleas and were later born on ships that sailed across the Mediterranean to southern Europe.

Present-day Plague

"Most people think of the plague as a historical disease," said Hinnebusch, who conducts plague research for the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. "But it's still out there, and it's still an international public health issue."

During the last ten years bubonic plague reappeared in Madagascar, which now has between 500 and 2,000 new cases each year.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the World Health Organization tallies as many as 3,000 plague cases each year around the world. Research interest in bubonic plague has been growing as, like anthrax, it could be used as a deadly bioterrorism agent (especially in pneumonic form).

While antibodies can be extremely effective against early stages of the plague, scientists are trying to learn more about how it works to be able to predict outbreaks and counteract the bacterium's scrambling of the immune system.

"There are so many unanswered questions about the plague," Hinnebusch said.

The plague will sleep for decades, even centuries, reemerge, and then seem to vanish again.

Panagiotakopulu said she wants to continue to track the evidence for the plague in Egypt and elsewhere to expand understanding of the still-mysterious epidemic.

TOPICS: News/Current Events
KEYWORDS: 536ad; ad536; ancient; antonineplague; archaeology; blackdeath; blackplague; bubonic; bubonicplague; catastrophism; egypt; ggg; godsgravesglyphs; helixmakemineadouble; history; plague; plagueofathens; plagueofjustinian; to; traced; turass; yersiniapestis
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1 posted on 03/11/2004 3:40:51 PM PST by blam
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To: farmfriend
2 posted on 03/11/2004 3:41:20 PM PST by blam
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To: blam
AQ's Winds of Black Death. Time to stock up on Hartz Tick and Flea dog shampoo.
3 posted on 03/11/2004 3:51:08 PM PST by mtbopfuyn
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To: blam
We have plague here in California in squirrels in parks. Never, never touch a wild squirrel! Every year they find more.
4 posted on 03/11/2004 3:55:04 PM PST by EggsAckley (..................IGNORE the drives them crazy)
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To: blam
This theory has been batted around for awhile, along with the theory small pox may have originated in Egypt also.

DNA evidence of Yersina pestis has been found in the teeth of some of the Middle Age's Black Death victims. It will be interesting (if it's possible????) to see if plague DNA shows up in any Egyptian remains.
5 posted on 03/11/2004 4:06:33 PM PST by lizma
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To: lizma
"It will be interesting (if it's possible????) to see if plague DNA shows up in any Egyptian remains."

I expect they'll look. Afterall, they've already found cocaine and nicotine in the most ancient Egyptian mummies.

6 posted on 03/11/2004 4:23:01 PM PST by blam
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To: blam
On a recent airline trip I happened to sit next to a scientist who investigates the plague for a large university medical school (he was a research and teaching physician). He advanced the theory that it would be highly unlikely, in fact, almost impossible, for the plague to gain any foothold in the U.S., Japan or Western Europe today because of the frequency with which today's societies showers or bathes with soap and hot water. The antibacterial effect of bath soap would deter the growth and be a hostile environment for the bug that causes the symptoms and sequence of the disease.
7 posted on 03/11/2004 4:29:35 PM PST by middie
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To: blam
Eva Panagiotakopulu

By the time you've pronounced her name, another dynasty has passed.

8 posted on 03/11/2004 4:53:28 PM PST by IronJack
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To: blam; *Gods, Graves, Glyphs; A.J.Armitage; abner; adam_az; AdmSmith; Alas Babylon!; ...
Gods, Graves, Glyphs
List for articles regarding early civilizations , life of all forms, - dinosaurs - etc.
Let me know if you wish to be added or removed from this ping list.
9 posted on 03/11/2004 4:55:23 PM PST by farmfriend ( Isaiah 55:10,11)
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To: blam
Question? What is the oldest specimen where DNA has been able to be extracted? And under what conditions?
10 posted on 03/11/2004 5:05:39 PM PST by lizma
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To: lizma
"Question? What is the oldest specimen where DNA has been able to be extracted? And under what conditions?"

I believe I read that DNA was extracted from a 224 million year old bacteria that was trapped inside a salt crystal. (I'll look and post on it if I find anything)

11 posted on 03/11/2004 5:12:19 PM PST by blam
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To: blam
Some recent scholarship on the Great Plaugue posits that it was actually two plagues aperating simultaneously. One was the traditonal bubonic plauge spread by flea bites or another infected person. The other is as yet unknown but some suspect a deadly flu virus. Two types of symptons have repeatedly been talked mentioned by primary sources- one is the bubous swelling, black oozing pus symptons and the other is a bubous free fierce fever that dehydrated the body and could kill in as little as 24 hours.
12 posted on 03/11/2004 5:15:23 PM PST by Burkeman1
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To: middie
Europeon cities were filthy in 1349. I can't imagine the smells that they put up with.
13 posted on 03/11/2004 5:18:14 PM PST by Burkeman1
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To: Burkeman1
I read a bit about these new theories. Another possible explanation is anthrax. Indeed tests done on areas where black death victims were buried in mass graves in England produced anthrax spores. Some still living, I think!
14 posted on 03/11/2004 5:21:51 PM PST by SoCal Pubbie
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15 posted on 03/11/2004 5:22:44 PM PST by Mo1 (Do you want a president who injects poison into his skull for vanity?)
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To: lizma
This is all I found.

Thirty Million-Year Sleep: Germ Is Declared Alive!

There were much older spores waiting to be revived. On May 19, 1995, The New York Times carried a front-page story about them (4). Biologists Raul Cano and Monica Borucki had extracted bacterial spores from bees preserved in amber in Costa Rica. Amber is tree-sap that hardens and persists as a fossil.
This amber had entrapped some bees and then hardened between 25 and 40 million years ago.
Bacteria living in the bees' digestive tracts had recognized a problem and turned themselves into spores. When placed in a suitable culture, the spores came right back to life.

As a control, the two biologists also attempted to culture from the same amber a number of samples that contained no bee parts. These cultures were negative, adding credibility to the experiment. This finding was originally reported in the journal Science (5) to general acceptance.

16 posted on 03/11/2004 5:22:57 PM PST by blam
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Comment #17 Removed by Moderator

To: SoCal Pubbie
Yes- Anthrax may also been a third cause of death but that theory is limited to England. But England suffered worse than did the continent so I can see three biological germs killing people in England very easily. They lost upwards of a full 3rd of their population. Before the plague the Population of England and Wales was 6 million. It wouldn't reach that level again until 1750.
18 posted on 03/11/2004 5:25:20 PM PST by Burkeman1
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To: SoCal Pubbie
Ironically- that England suffered even worse in the Black Death than did the rest of Europe is the reason why surfdom and Feudalism died more quickly and a substantial class of free yoeman peasenty arose. With far fewer hands available to work the fields- serfs found they could easily demand concessions and greater freedoms from their lords as labor was scarce. The price of labor shot up in England and in Wales. Eventually lords had to even sell some of their vast estates to productive serfs.
19 posted on 03/11/2004 5:30:16 PM PST by Burkeman1
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To: lizma
Here's the one I think I was thinking mention of DNA though

It's Alive! A 250-Million-Year-Old Bacterium Found In Salt Crystal

20 posted on 03/11/2004 5:31:06 PM PST by blam
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