Morbidly fascinating

Posted by lex, on January 30, 2008

One of the better books I’ve read in the last few years was entitled, “The Great Mortality” – a splendidly written chronicle of the Black Plague. The author turned a particularly grim period of history into a gripping, if macabre page turner, virtually anthropomorphizing the virulent bacteria that killed around one third of all people then living in Europe and which in places reached a mortality rate as high as 50%.

In the New York Times today, two anthropologists challenge the accepted wisdom:

Many historians have assumed that Europe’s deadliest plague, the Black Death of 1347 to 1351, killed indiscriminately, young and old, hardy and frail, healthy and sick alike. But two anthropologists were not so sure. They decided to take a closer look at the skeletons of people buried more than 650 years ago.

Their findings, published on Monday in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, suggest that the plague selectively took the already ill, while many of the otherwise healthy survived the infection.

The scientists fashioned their thesis by comparing the skeletons of plague victims in London with pre-plague skeletons from Denmark. They noted that a disproportionate number of the plague victims had bone lesions indicative of reduced immune defenses – probably related to chronic malnutrition.

First a third of the population starves, then they catch the plague – not for nothing were these known as the Dark Ages.

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