Understanding the Black Death: Archaeologists Reconstruct Justinian Plague

“Our research confirms that the Justinianic plague reached far beyond the historically documented affected region and provides new insights into the evolutionary history of Yersinia pestis, illustrating the potential of ancient genomic reconstructions to broaden our understanding of pathogen evolution and of historical events. Our reanalysis…stresses the importance of following strict criteria to avoid errors in the reconstruction of ancient [diseases].” – Scientist Michael Feldman.

ALTENERDING, GERMANY – Archaeologists have recently discovered skeletons in a burial site near Munich, Germany, that may shed light on the mystery of the Plague of Justinian.

PHOTO: howstuffworks.com

PHOTO: howstuffworks.com

The Black Plague still affects the world, with outbreaks popping up in Lybia, Algeria, and the Congo. In the United States, ABC News reported that there are roughly 1,000 to 3,000 cases of Bubonic Plague each year. So, the disease, caused by a strain of bacteria called Yersinia pestis, is still alive and well. Because of this, archaeologists around the world are actively trying to dig up plague victims in order to learn more about the disease. Hopefully, the more we learn about the Plague, the better equipped modern medicine will be to treat it.

What many people don’t know is that the Black Plague was not the first outbreak of Yersinia Pestis to sweep the world. In the 6th century, there was an outbreak commonly referred to as Justinian’s Plague. It was a pandemic that stretched all across the Byzantine Empire, mostly in Constantinople, and afflicted hundreds of port cities in the Mediterranean. It’s considered to be one of the greatest plagues in history, wiping out over 50 million people (15% of the world’s population at the time).

A map of the Byzantine Empire a decade after the Plague of Justinian. [PHOTO: wikimedia]

A map of the Byzantine Empire a decade after the Plague of Justinian. [PHOTO: wikimedia]

Modern scholars believe that Justinian’s Plague, at its height, killed 5,000 people per day in Constantinople alone. A pandemic on this scale would not be seen again until the Black Death of the 14th century. Some believe Justinian’s plague was partially to blame for the fall of the Byzantine Empire.

Historians, archaeologists, and scientists alike are all hoping that more information gathered from studying ancient victims and traces of the bacteria strain will help us understand this sickness that has been a specter of death for 5,000 years of human history.

The Altenerding Genome

German archaeologists and scientists Michael Feldman, Johannes Krause, Michaela Harbeck, and their colleagues have finally confirmed the 6th century’s Justinian’s Plague as the ancient precursor to the Black Death of the 14th century by studying two skeletons found in a southern German burial site.

The skeletons were the remains of victims claimed by Justinian’s Plague. The scientists were able to recover Yersinia Pestis from the bones and were able to reconstruct what the genome, or genetic makeup, of the early plague looked like. They’re calling it the Altenerding genome. Not only is this discovery providing insight into the evolution of Yersinia pestis from the Byzantine times to now, it’s also providing knowledge about new mutations and features that had not been previously known.

“We were very fortunate to find another plague victim with very good DNA preservation in a graveyard…It provided us with the great opportunity to reconstruct the first high quality genome in addition to the previously published draft genome.” – Michaela Harbeck.

It’s just the breakthrough that scientists have been looking for. The research illuminated key mutations pertaining to the disease’s virulence (its ability to damage the victim), and revealed the strain to be much more genetically diverse than anyone had thought it to be. The research done in Germany is a beautiful example of how the study of what happened to the human race in the past can help better the human race in the future. Armed with new data, scientists and researchers can continue moving forward to eradicate the Black Plague from the face of human history.