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Plague first came to Britain from Europe at least 4000 years ago

The bacterium that causes the plague first arrived in Britain at least 4000 years ago, DNA evidence from ancient people has revealed.

Yersinia pestis is best known for its role in the Black Death, which killed a third of Europe’s population in the 14th century. In 2021, the earliest known plague strain was found in a skull buried in Latvia 5000 years ago.

Pooja Swali at the Francis Crick Institute in London and her colleagues tested the teeth of 30 individuals found in a mass burial site at Charterhouse Warren Farm in Somerset, as well as teeth from four individuals buried at Levens Park ring cairn in Cumbria, UK.

The teeth of two children from Charterhouse and one woman from Levens Park tested positive for the DNA of Y. pestis. This is the first evidence that the plague bacterium had spread to Britain from continental Europe in the Bronze Age.

The strain was nearly identical to one that was found in Germany at around the same time, says Swali. This strain doesn’t have a genetic mutation that enabled later forms of the bacteria to be spread by fleas.

“This study documents plague’s spread to Late Neolithic Britain for the first time,” says Monica Green at the Medieval Academy of America in Massachusetts. This isn’t particularly surprising, given that connections between continental Europe and Britain were well-established in this period, she says. “Still, the fact that what is presumed to be a rodent disease was capable of migration to this degree is notable.”

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In light of the considerable distance between the two burial grounds, the researchers think it is likely that Y. pestis was widely spread across Bronze Age Britain.

“It’s really interesting to map the distribution of previously unknown Yersinia strains that far back in time,” says Hendrik Poinar at McMaster University in Hamilton, Canada.

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The remains found at Charterhouse show signs of an extremely violent death, raising questions about why they were killed. “It is possible that the trauma inflicted on the group as a whole had something to do with the fact that plague was circulating in the group,” says Green. “There are, in fact, other plague-related burials in medieval Europe suggesting fear-based responses to plague outbreaks. These signs are most pronounced in grave sites associated with plague’s first arrival, in the 1310s.”

Journal reference:

Nature Communications. DOI: 10.1038/s41467-023-38393-w

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