Britain’s Oldest Discovery of Plague Victims in Pit

The recent archaeological discovery of traces of Yersinia pestis bacteria in 4,000-year-old human remains from Bronze Age burial sites in Cumbria and Somerset provides the oldest evidence of the plague in Britain.

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The findings have shed light on the early spread of the disease and its impact on human populations. they have revealed that an outbreak of the plague, which swept through Eurasia during the early Bronze Age, reached Britain thousands of years before documented cases of the disease in AD 541.

The Skeletons

The study, published in Nature Communications, involved DNA analysis of dental pulp from the teeth of 34 skeletons excavated from the two burial sites. Among the remains, one woman aged between 35 and 45 at the Cumbrian monument and two children aged 10 to 12 at Charterhouse Warren tested positive for plague bacteria.

The Charterhouse Warren burial pit. (Photo: Tony Audsley)

It is important to note that while only three individuals were identified as infected in the study, there is a possibility that others at the burial sites were also affected but were not detected due to DNA degradation over time. Radiocarbon dating placed the three infected individuals at roughly the same time, approximately 4,000 years ago.

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This discovery represents a significant milestone in our understanding of the history of the plague in Britain. While previous studies have reported cases of the plague across Eurasia, none had been identified in Britain from such an ancient period.

The Black Death

The DNA analysis revealed that the strain of Yersinia pestis found in the individuals lacked certain genes associated with later strains, such as yapC and ymt. These genes played a role in the transmission of the plague by fleas, leading to the bubonic form of the disease that caused devastating pandemics like the Black Death in the 14th century.

Europe had been ravaged by various plaques throughout time.

The strain present in Britain 4,000 years ago is believed to be the pneumonic form of plague, which affects the lungs and can spread rapidly within communities.

Additionally, the researchers noted evidence of violence at the Charterhouse Warren site, where numerous dismembered bodies were found. The connection between the plague outbreak and the violence observed at the site remains unclear and requires further investigation.

Plague in Britain

This discovery highlights the significance of ancient DNA analysis in identifying and reconstructing past outbreaks of infectious diseases that would otherwise remain unknown. By studying ancient DNA, scientists hope to gain insights into how diseases have shaped human history and understand how human societies and health have been affected by these epidemics and pandemics.

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Overall, this finding provides valuable insights into the early history of the plague in Britain, offering a glimpse into the spread and impact of the disease in ancient times.

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