Skeletons Reveal Black Death Secrets

Victims led hard lives before dying, scientists say
By Neal Colgrass,  Newser Staff
Posted Mar 30, 2014 2:07 PM CDT
Black Death Victims Found in Railway Dig
In this Wednesday, March 26, 2014 photo, osteologist Don Walker poses for photographers, with one of the skeletons found by construction workers under central London's Charterhouse Square.   (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis)

Skeletons dug up in London last year are indeed the remains of people who died from the Black Plague—and who suffered a tough life before falling ill, the BBC reports. Forensic analysis shows that teeth taken from at least four of the 12 corpses discovered during excavation for a rail line contained trace amounts of plague DNA, indicating exposure. Early burials found at the site, from the late 1340s, are nice and orderly, with bodies wrapped in white shrouds, but skeletons from a second outbreak in the 1430s are tossed in with what appear to be upper-body injuries—evidence of "a period of lawlessness and social breakdown," reports. Among other significant details:

  • Several skeletons suffered from malnutrition and 16% had rickets. Many had back damage, signalling stressful manual labor.
  • Analysis of one victim is amazingly detailed: He was born outside of London, breastfed, had bad tooth decay as a boy, and worked in manual labor before dying as a young man of the Black Death.
  • Archaeologists suspect that thousands more Black Death victims lie nearby, and a dig is planned for this summer.
  • DNA experts are analyzing the plague genome in victims' teeth in case there's more to learn about the disease, which still kills 2,000 people per year (when antibiotics aren't applied within four days). "It is useful information that could warn and avert potential epidemics and pandemics," says a London scientist.
In a similar vein, see why it's bad news that the Plague and Black Death were quite different. (More Black Death stories.)

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