Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations

New study sheds light on survivors of the Black Death

Date:
May 7, 2014
Source:
University of South Carolina
Summary:
A new study suggests that people who survived the medieval mass-killing plague known as the Black Death lived significantly longer and were healthier than people who lived before the epidemic struck in 1347. These findings have important implications for understanding emerging diseases and how they impact the health of individuals and populations of people.

DeWitte examines teeth for linear enamel hypoplasia, or little horizontal grooves that form when children's enamel formation is interrupted by malnutrition or infectious disease.
Credit: Sharon DeWitte

A new study suggests that people who survived the medieval mass-killing plague known as the Black Death lived significantly longer and were healthier than people who lived before the epidemic struck in 1347.

Caused by the bacteria Yersinia pestis, the Black Death wiped out 30 percent of Europeans and nearly half of Londoners during its initial four-year wave from 1347 -- 1351.

Released Wednesday (May 7) in the journal PLOS ONE, the study by University of South Carolina anthropologist Sharon DeWitte provides the first look at how the plague, called bubonic plague today, shaped population demographics and health for generations.

The findings have important implications for understanding emerging diseases and how they impact the health of individuals and populations of people.

"Knowing how strongly diseases can actually shape human biology can give us tools to work with in the future to understand disease and how it might affect us," DeWitte says.

She says the Black Death was a single iteration of a disease that has affected humans since at least the 6th century Plague of Justinian.

"Genetic analysis of 14th century Y. pestis has not revealed significant functional differences in the ancient and modern strains," DeWitte says. "This suggests that we need to consider other factors such as the characteristics of humans in order to understand changes in the disease over time."

To better understand those human factors DeWitte has spent the last decade examining the skeletal remains of more 1,000 men, women and children who lived before, during and after the Black Death. The skeletons, maintained in the archives of the Museum of London, were excavated from a handful of well-documented London cemeteries, including St. Mary Spital, Guildhall Yard, St. Nicholas Shambles and St. Mary Graces.

The skeletons are catalogued in 3-foot by 1-foot boxes. As she studies each skeleton, DeWitte determines biological sex, age at death and analyzes specific markers, including porous lesions, and teeth, to gauge each individual's general health. Her bioarchaeological research is providing a new dimension to the study of Black Death and provides the first look at the lives of women and children during this medieval time period.

"It's innovative because of the analytical approaches I take. I'm providing more nuanced reconstructions of life in the past than is possible with more traditional methods in my field," DeWitte says. "My Black Death research is rare because the samples that I use are exceedingly rare. There are only a handful of large cemetery samples that are clearly linked to the 14th century Black Death.

"And, most medieval historical records only tell about the experience of men. We have little information about the experiences of women and children and the poor in general during medieval plague epidemics, including the Black Death. My bioarchaeological data allows us to understand how the population in general fared during and after the epidemic."

DeWitte's analysis has revealed several important findings. Most notably that:

• the 14th-century Black Death was not an indiscriminate killer, but instead targeted frail people of all ages;

• survivors of the Black Death experienced improvements in health and longevity, with many people living to ages of 70 or 80 years, as compared to pre-Black Death populations;

• improvements in survival post-Black Death didn't necessarily equate to good health over a lifespan, but revealed a hardiness to endure disease, including repeated bouts of plague; and

• the Black Death, either directly or indirectly, very powerfully shaped mortality patterns for generations after the epidemic ended.

DeWitte says she was surprised by how much of a change she estimated between the pre- and post-Black Death periods.

"The Black Death was just the first outbreak of medieval plague, so the post-Black Death population suffered major threats to health in part from repeated outbreaks of plague," DeWitte says. "Despite this, I found substantial improvements in demographics and thus health following the Black Death."

In addition to the PLOS ONE journal article, DeWitte has a related article appearing in the current issue of the American Journal of Physical Anthropology.

DeWitte will head back to London this month with two graduate students for six weeks to collect further data. Her research is funded by the National Science Foundation, the Wenner-Grenn Foundation, the American Association of Physical Anthropologists and the university's office of the provost.


Story Source:

The above story is based on materials provided by University of South Carolina. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.


Journal Reference:

  1. Sharon N. DeWitte. Mortality Risk and Survival in the Aftermath of the Medieval Black Death. PLoS ONE, 2014; 9 (5): e96513 DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0096513

Cite This Page:

University of South Carolina. "New study sheds light on survivors of the Black Death." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 7 May 2014. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/05/140507211415.htm>.
University of South Carolina. (2014, May 7). New study sheds light on survivors of the Black Death. ScienceDaily. Retrieved September 2, 2014 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/05/140507211415.htm
University of South Carolina. "New study sheds light on survivors of the Black Death." ScienceDaily. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/05/140507211415.htm (accessed September 2, 2014).

Share This




More Science & Society News

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations


Featured Videos

from AP, Reuters, AFP, and other news services

Raw: Thousands of Fish Dead in Mexico Lake

Raw: Thousands of Fish Dead in Mexico Lake

AP (Sep. 2, 2014) Over 53 tons of rotting fish have been removed from Lake Cajititlan in western Jalisco state. Authorities say that the thousands of fish did not die of natural causes. (Sep. 2) Video provided by AP
Powered by NewsLook.com
U.N. Says Ebola Travel Restrictions Will Cause Food Shortage

U.N. Says Ebola Travel Restrictions Will Cause Food Shortage

Newsy (Sep. 2, 2014) The U.N. says the problem is two-fold — quarantine zones and travel restrictions are limiting the movement of both people and food. Video provided by Newsy
Powered by NewsLook.com
Get on Your Bike! London Cycling Popularity Soars Despite Danger

Get on Your Bike! London Cycling Popularity Soars Despite Danger

AFP (Sep. 1, 2014) Wedged between buses, lorries and cars, cycling in London isn't for the faint hearted. Nevertheless the number of people choosing to bike in the British capital has doubled over the past 15 years. Duration: 02:27 Video provided by AFP
Powered by NewsLook.com
Thailand Totters Towards Waste Crisis

Thailand Totters Towards Waste Crisis

AFP (Sep. 1, 2014) Fears are mounting in Bangkok that poor planning and lax law enforcement are tipping Thailand towards a waste crisis. Duration: 01:21 Video provided by AFP
Powered by NewsLook.com

Search ScienceDaily

Number of stories in archives: 140,361

Find with keyword(s):
Enter a keyword or phrase to search ScienceDaily for related topics and research stories.

Save/Print:
Share:

Breaking News:
from the past week

In Other News

... from NewsDaily.com

Science News

Health News

Environment News

Technology News



Save/Print:
Share:

Free Subscriptions


Get the latest science news with ScienceDaily's free email newsletters, updated daily and weekly. Or view hourly updated newsfeeds in your RSS reader:

Get Social & Mobile


Keep up to date with the latest news from ScienceDaily via social networks and mobile apps:

Have Feedback?


Tell us what you think of ScienceDaily -- we welcome both positive and negative comments. Have any problems using the site? Questions?
Mobile: iPhone Android Web
Follow: Facebook Twitter Google+
Subscribe: RSS Feeds Email Newsletters
Latest Headlines Health & Medicine Mind & Brain Space & Time Matter & Energy Computers & Math Plants & Animals Earth & Climate Fossils & Ruins