The oldest evidence of plague was discovered in 4,000-year-old human remains in Britain, according to a study published Tuesday.
The study authors identified Yersinia pestis bacteria, which causes the deadly, gruesome Plague disease, in the teeth of ancient Britons found at two sites in Kendal and the Mendips. To the best of the author’s knowledge, the findings represent the earliest cases of plague in the archipelago, thousands of years prior to the first documented cases during the Plague of Justinian in AD541, the Guardian noted.
One of the sites used to identify the bacteria, Chaterhouse Warren in the Mendips, is a pretty weird place. Some 40 men, women, and children were dismembered and buried at the site in a natural shaft. Two children at the site tested positive for plague, some 4,000 years after their remains were deposited underground.
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“Evidence for violence is very rare in early bronze-age Britain, with nothing on this scale having been discovered before,” study co-author, Prof. Rick Schulting, told the outlet. “The finding of plague was completely unexpected, as this disease leaves no traces on the skeleton. At the moment we’re not sure how this new evidence fits into the story of what happened at the site, and whether or not there may be some connection between the disease and the violence.”
DNA analysis suggests that the plague victims carried an older strain of the bacteria, which lacks the yapC and ymt genes that allowed later strains to spread through fleas. It’s believed that the earlier bacteria caused fever, headaches, weakness, and pneumonia, and could spread from a single individual to an entire community in a matter of days. (RELATED: New Book Reveals Fate Of Ancient Artifacts Destroyed During WW2)
The bacteria is still part of the plague family, which includes three subsets: pneumonic, bubonic, and septicaemic, all of which can cause death without ample treatment, according to the Natural History Museum.
A later strain of the bubonic subset is believed to have killed at least one-third of Europe’s population in the mid-14th century.