Unleashing Curiosity, Igniting Discovery - The Science Fusion

At Least 4000 Years Ago, Plague Arrived in Britain from Europe

Levens Park ring cairn in Cumbria, UK, where the plague bacterium was found in a Bronze Age woman’s tooth

Ian Hodkinson

A recent study using DNA evidence from ancient people has revealed that the bacterium responsible for the plague first arrived in Britain over 4000 years ago.

The plague, caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis, is famously known for its devastating impact during the Black Death in the 14th century, which resulted in the death of one-third of Europe’s population. In 2021, the earliest-known strain of the plague was discovered in a skull buried in Latvia dating back 5000 years.

In this study, researchers led by Pooja Swali from the Francis Crick Institute in London analyzed the teeth of 30 individuals buried at Charterhouse Warren Farm in Somerset, as well as the teeth of four individuals buried at Levens Park ring cairn in Cumbria, UK.

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

The strain found in the teeth was almost identical to one discovered in Germany around the same time. However, this particular strain did not possess a genetic mutation that enabled later forms of the bacteria to be transmitted by fleas.

Monica Green from the Medieval Academy of America in Massachusetts comments that this study is a significant documentation of the spread of the plague to Late Neolithic Britain. She points out that it is not surprising given the well-established connections between continental Europe and Britain during this period. However, the fact that a rodent disease like the plague was capable of migrating to such a degree is noteworthy.

Considering the considerable distance between the two burial sites, the researchers believe that Y. pestis was likely widespread across Bronze Age Britain.

Hendrik Poinar from McMaster University in Hamilton, Canada, finds the distribution of these previously unknown Yersinia strains fascinating, especially when mapping them back in time.

The remains found at Charterhouse showed signs of violent deaths, raising questions about the reasons behind their killings. Green suggests that it is possible that the group’s violent end may be connected to the presence of the plague. She mentions that there are other plague-related burials in medieval Europe that suggest fear-based responses to outbreaks, particularly evident in grave sites associated with the initial arrival of the plague in the 1310s.


Share this article
Shareable URL
Prev Post

Test Your Knowledge of Animal Droppings with this Picture Quiz

Next Post

We Have Limited Knowledge of the Thousands of Proteins in the Human Body

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Read next
Synthetic intelligence went mainstream in 2023 — it was a very long time coming but has an extended approach to…