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London skeletons reveal secrets of the Black Death

LONDON (AP) - You can learn a lot from a tooth.

Molars taken from skeletons unearthed by work on a new London railway line are revealing secrets of the medieval Black Death - and of its victims.

This week, Don Walker, an osteologist with the Museum of London, outlined the biography of one man whose ancient bones were found by construction workers under London's Charterhouse Square: He was breast-fed as a baby, moved to London from another part of England, had bad tooth decay in childhood, grew up to work as a laborer, and died in early adulthood from the bubonic plague that ravaged Europe in the 14th century.

London's Lost Black Death Mass Grave Discovered

The poor man's life was nasty, brutish and short, but his afterlife is long and illuminating.

"It's fantastic we can look in such detail at an individual who died 600 years ago," Walker said. "It's incredible, really."

The 25 skeletons were uncovered last year during work on Crossrail, a new rail line that's boring 13 miles (21 kilometers) of tunnels under the heart of the city. Archaeologists immediately suspected the bones came from a cemetery for plague victims. The location, outside the walls of the medieval city, chimes with historical accounts. The square, once home to a monastery, is one of the few spots in the city to stay undisturbed for centuries.

To test their theory, scientists took one tooth from each of 12 skeletons, then extracted DNA from the teeth. They announced Sunday that tests had found the presence of the plague bacterium, Yersinia pestis, in several of the teeth, meaning the individuals had been exposed to - and likely died from - the Black Death.

The findings didn't stop there. Archaeologists, historians, microbiologists and physicists worked together to apply techniques from several scientific disciplines to the discovery.

Radiocarbon dating and analysis of pottery shards helped determine when the burials took place. Forensic geophysics - more commonly used in murder and war-crimes investigations - helped locate more graves under the square. Studying oxygen and strontium isotopes in the bones revealed details of diet and health.

These were, by and large, poor people. Many of the skeletons showed signs of malnutrition consistent with the "Great Famine" that struck Europe 30 years before the Black Death. Many had back injuries suggesting lives of hard labor. One man became a vegetarian late in life, indicating he may have entered an order of monks.

Archaeologists were surprised to discover that the skeletons lay in layers and appeared to come from three different periods: the original Black Death epidemic in 1348-1350, and later outbreaks in 1361 and the early 15th century.

"It suggests that the burial ground was used again and again for the burial of plague victims," said Jay Carver, Crossrail's lead archaeologist.

The Black Death is thought to have killed at least 75 million people, including more than half of Britain's population, yet the burials suggest a surprisingly high degree of social order - at first. As the plague ravaged continental Europe - borne westward by fleas on rats - city fathers leased land for an emergency burial ground. The burials were simple but orderly, the bodies wrapped in shrouds and laid out in neat rows, sealed with a layer of clay.

The later skeletons, however, show more signs of upper-body injuries, consistent with a period of lawlessness and social breakdown.

Archaeologists are planning a new dig this summer to learn how many bodies lie under the square. Carver says the number appears to be in the "low thousands."

And the teeth may not have yielded all their secrets. Experts in ancient DNA at McMaster University in Canada are working to sequence the plague genome found in the teeth, in order to learn more about a disease that still infects several thousand people a year around the world. Most patients recover if treated early with antibiotics.

Scientists want to know if the 14th-century disease is the same as the modern version, or whether the disease has evolved. Study of DNA from the teeth of skeletons discovered in the 1980s at another London plague cemetery suggested the bug was largely unchanged, but the scientific jury is still out.

Brendan Wren, a professor of molecular biology at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said the new information could help scientists "understand how the plague bacillus - and other nasty bugs - become so virulent to humans."

"It is useful information that could warn and avert potential epidemics and pandemics," he said.

Join the discussion

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jpjgamas March 30 2014 at 11:28 AM

Will the DNA information of those who died from the plague be available for comparison on Ancestry.com or other sites? Will this help those of us whose English ancestor families go missing in the 1300's, 1400's or 1500's? These plague victims are someones ancestors and their descendents deserve this information.

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3 replies
joyfuljney March 30 2014 at 2:30 PM


Let us see where this will go. This is my first time one this site.

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1 reply
ty.45 joyfuljney March 30 2014 at 2:47 PM

Yep! it worked.

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seacord March 30 2014 at 2:46 PM

I guess life can sometimes really be like dreaming, I don't think one will ever quite know for sure...

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invisibleman1515 March 30 2014 at 2:47 PM

Pretty fascinating stuff. Science is amazing

5000 years from now, the alien "diggers" will cross reference our remains with the advertising data of the time and determine that humans died out from rampant erectile dysfunction, everyone was either obese or anorexic and the eath was ruled by the clan Kardashian

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2 replies
Jon invisibleman1515 March 30 2014 at 3:04 PM

And we worshipped someone called Ronald McDonald.

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matilda524 invisibleman1515 March 30 2014 at 4:18 PM

Hey don't forget Miley

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wstarhopper March 30 2014 at 2:57 PM

It would be interesting if they could find modern desendants of these people .

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1 reply
barbphen60 wstarhopper March 30 2014 at 4:10 PM

They have found them. They are called, "Europeans".

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Mary Beth barbphen60 March 30 2014 at 4:54 PM

Oh you know what wstarhopper's means. Don't be goofy.

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dlcox56 barbphen60 March 30 2014 at 5:51 PM

I think "wstarhopper" meant people related in a familial way - great-(x15 or so) grandchildren, etc.

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Hi! AUDREY March 30 2014 at 3:02 PM

Science rules!! This was not the devil's work

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combmaker March 30 2014 at 5:52 PM

The bubonic plague is still alive and well in the world. Here in northern California, when I worked in a hospital ICU, a game warden came in, critically ill. He had been doing a squirrel study. He had the pneumonic form of bubonic. He died within four days, everything possible being done for him in a modern ICU. Finding out more information about how/if the virus has mutated can be valuable in addressing modern forms.

From another viewpoint, it's fascinating and informative to get glimpses into past lives. All we have to do that with are the material remains. These skeletons would have been removed anyway for construction purposes. Why not examine them?

That the bacterium is still identifiable does not necessarily mean that it is viable. Even so, I'm sure that all precautions are being taken to avoid possible infection.

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1 reply
untjeb combmaker March 30 2014 at 6:48 PM

The bubonic plague is is caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis. It is carried by the fleas that infest rodents. The pneumonic form is very contageous and often fatal.

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Ashley Worlock March 30 2014 at 5:57 PM

wow im glad that was not me but i didnt read the hole things so....

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Iselin007 March 30 2014 at 6:38 PM

There are actual records from the Medieval ages and later stored in churches in England. When they make statements concerning what town they moved from they should state how they figured the claim out.

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1 reply
Shawn Bushway Iselin007 March 30 2014 at 6:55 PM

Not a whole lot comes from churches - it's mainly folklore, burial artifacts and family bibles. Even if they did look at church records they have to still substantiate it.

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Iselin007 Shawn Bushway March 30 2014 at 7:52 PM

My ancestor left England in the early 1600's for the colonies in America. Many in my family tree were in the clergy in the churches of England. You might find a Bishop of Lincoln/Winchester and Bishop of Winchester in my family tree. In England William the Conqueror had records made in 1086 called the Domesday Book. Robert son of Walchelin is said to be my ancestor. The churches and the crown kept records. The Univercities in England have records because some of them have been around for centuries!

Some of the records in the early colonies here in America have been lost or destroyed by fires but many have survived along with some headstones of the early setters/immigrants from England!

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thomas March 30 2014 at 2:24 PM

Wouldn't it suck to find out: If all this unearthing of corpses from "the Black Death" era , Causes a new "evolved" version of the Plague? These scientists, with their research, cause a chain of events which will inturn, lead to a far more devastating era? eh, what can you do? hahaha

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2 replies
campbell1221 thomas March 30 2014 at 3:53 PM

That's OK the world is overpopulated anyway. Every so often something comes along to lessen the world population.

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matilda524 thomas March 30 2014 at 4:22 PM

"These scientists, with their research" has done nothing but benefit people.

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