Black Death victims yield their secrets
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. And researchers hope further testing will help in the fight against future pandemics.
Don Walker, an osteologist with the Museum of London, late last month 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.
The poor man’s life was nasty, brutish and short, but his afterlife is long and illuminating.
The 25 skeletons were uncovered last year during work on Crossrail, a new rail line that’s boring 13 miles of tunnels under the heart of the city. Archaeologists immediately suspected the bones came from a cemetery for plague victims.
To test their theory, scientists took one tooth from each of 12 skeletons, then extracted DNA from the teeth. The tests 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.
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.
Scientists want to know if the 14th century disease is the same as the modern version, or whether the disease has evolved. 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.
Skeletons unearthed in London could help scientists battle future epidemics.