Scientists assert that extinct pathogens brought about the collapse of ancient civilizations.

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Several Bronze Age civilizations in the Eastern Mediterranean experienced a marked decline at roughly the same time thousands of years ago.

As a result of the fall of the Old Kingdom of Egypt and the Akkadian Empire, there was a generalized social crisis throughout the Ancient Near East and the Aegean, which was exhibited by dwindling populations, damage, decreased trade, and substantial cultural changes.

As usual, blame has been placed on shifting allegiances and climate change. But in certain ancient bones, researchers have suddenly discovered a new offender.

A team led by archaeogeneticist Gunnar Neumann of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany discovered genetic evidence of bacteria responsible for two of history’s most significant diseases, typhoid fever and plague, in the remains excavated from an ancient burial site on Crete, in a cave called Hagios Charalambos.

The vast socioeconomic changes that occurred between 2200 and 2000 BCE were attributed to a number of factors, including the widespread illnesses brought on by these pathogens, according to the researchers.

Their findings “emphasize the necessity to re-introduce infectious diseases as an additional factor possibly contributing to the transformation of early complex societies in the Aegean and beyond,” they wrote in their paper. The discovery of these two dangerous pathogens in Crete at the end of the Early Minoan period.

Tens of millions of deaths have been attributed to the bacterium Yersinia pestis, the majority of which happened during three horrifying worldwide pandemics. Despite the disease’s catastrophic nature in the past, it has been challenging to assess its impact before the Plague of Justinian, which began in 541 CE.

Some of that buried history is now being revealed because to recent scientific and technical advancements, particularly the recovery and sequencing of ancient DNA from old bones.

For instance, we now believe that the bacterium has been spreading among humans since at least the Neolithic era.

A Stone Age hunter-gatherer most certainly perished from plague thousands of years before there was proof that the illness had spread to epidemic levels, according to research published last year.

However, the genomic data that had been found up until that point came from colder climates. Due of DNA deterioration in warmer regions, such as those in the Eastern Mediterranean, little is known about its effects on ancient societies.

So Neumann and his team began poring over the bones found at a Crete site noted for its exceptionally chilly and steady climate.

32 people who passed away between the years 2290 and 1909 BCE had their DNA found in their teeth. It was anticipated that the genomic data would show the presence of numerous common oral bacteria.

The finding of Y. pestis in two people and two Salmonella enterica lineages in two more people—bacteria generally associated with typhoid fever—was less anticipated. This finding implies that both infections were present in Bronze Age Crete and might have been contagious.

But there is a condition. Since all of the detected lineages are now extinct, it is more difficult to evaluate how their infections may have impacted populations.

One of the characteristics that made other Y. pestis lineages highly contagious in human populations was the ability to spread through fleas, which is likely impossible for the lineage of the bacteria they discovered.

The bubonic plague is spread by the flea vector, and humans become infected when the bacterium gets into their lymphatic system through a flea bite. Thus, a distinct plague type, like pneumonic plague, which is spread by aerosols, could result from this ancient version of the bacterium’s different transmission method.

The virulence and modes of transmission of these infections are yet unclear, according to the researchers, who also claimed that the S. enterica lineages lacked crucial characteristics that contribute to severe disease in humans.

However, the finding indicates that both viruses were present and may have spread fairly wildly in areas of Crete with large human densities.

“We propose that, given the [ancient] DNA evidence presented here, infectious diseases should be considered as an additional contributing factor; possibly in an interplay with climate and migration, as has previously been suggested,” the researchers wrote in their paper. “While it is unlikely that Y. pestis or S. enterica were the sole culprits responsible for the societal changes observed in the Mediterranean at the end of the third millennium BCE.”

Diseases like the plague and typhoid are rarely noted in the archaeological record because they do not leave marks on bones. The team contends that more thorough DNA analysis of more archaeological remains from the Eastern Mediterranean could provide light on the extent to which these diseases affected the civilizations that once called that region home.


Current Biology has published the research.

Ali Esen

Istanbul University, Department of Mathematics. Interested in science and technology.


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