Researchers at McMaster University’s Ancient DNA Center in Canada have uncovered a link between two of the deadliest plagues in European history — the Justinian Plague and the Black Death.
The Justinian Plague hit Byzantine Europe in the 6th century under the reign of the Roman emperor Justinian, hence the name. The plague is suspected to have killed millions. Although an exact number is unknown, some historians estimate around 50 million deaths, and even attribute the Justinian Plague as a cause of the fall of the Roman Empire, according to NPR. The Black Death on the other hand struck Europe not until the 14th century. It was one of the most devastating pandemics in European history, having killed between 75 and 200 million people just within the years of 1348-1350.
The evidence was drawn from the skeletons of people killed by the Justinian Plague, found in the ground by real estate developers outside of Munich in Germany. These skeletons were thoroughly examined — but it was their teeth from which scientists were able to draw conclusions, linking these two deadly plagues.
After extracting traces of blood within the skeleton’s tooth, researchers “reconstructed the genetic code of a strain of bacteria” that indeed caused the Justinian Plague 1500 years ago. This strain of bacteria called Yersinia pestis is the same pathogen that caused the bubonic plague — which has been the suspected cause of the Black Death.
The significance of these findings is knowing that in history, various forms of the plague, all caused by the same pathogen, has inflicted humans without warning and spread like wildfire each time. But how? Scientists predict in the case of the Justinian plague, rodents infected humans first and the disease spread quickly thereafter. The plague ended when nearly every infected human died. The Black Death however, was caused by the same strain of bacteria, but it was caused by a separate event entirely.
According to Time magazine, each occurrence of plague in history was not a “wild fluke” and it could happen again.
But don’t get worried just yet. While a pandemic could happen again as it has in history, it’s not very likely. Thousands of incidents of plague still occur all over the world each year. These cases are still spread in the same way as in the Justinian era — by bacteria-carrying fleas or rodents. Fortunately, modern medicine has given us the antibiotics to treat the disease is in its early stages.
This is yet another scientific study that proves how resilient teeth are. Even after 1,500 hundred years we are able to learn much about a civilization based on a tooth exam!
Dr. Mike Malone and his team practice expert cosmetic dentistry in Lafayette, LA. Dr. Malone is the former president and current accredited member of the American Academy of Cosmetic Dentistry. He is also the official Cosmetic Dentist of the Miss Louisiana USA and Miss Louisiana Teen USA pageants. Check out his website for more information.