Category Archives: Disciplines

Second Pandemic Plague Genomes of the 18th Century

Guellil, M. et al. A genomic and historical synthesis of plague in 18th century Eurasia. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U. S. A. (2020) doi:10.1073/pnas.2009677117


Plague continued to afflict Europe for more than five centuries after the Black Death. Yet, by the 17th century, the dynamics of plague had changed, leading to its slow decline in Western Europe over the subsequent 200 y, a period for which only one genome was previously available. Using a multidisciplinary approach, combining genomic and historical data, we assembled Y. pestisg enomes from nine individuals covering four Eurasian sites and placed them into an historical context within the established phylogeny. CHE1 (Chechnya, Russia,18th century) is now the latest Second Plague Pandemic genome and the first non-European sample in the post-Black Death lineage. Its placement in the phylogeny and our synthesis point toward the existence of an extra-European reservoir feeding plague into Western Europe in multiple waves. By considering socioeconomic, ecological, and climatic factors we highlight the importance of a noneurocentric approach for the discussion on Second Plague Pandemic dynamics in Europe.

Acceleration of plague outbreaks in London by historical sources

D. J. D. Earn/J. Ma/H. Poinar u. a., Acceleration of plague outbreaks in the second pandemic. Proc .Nat. Acad. Science USA (PNAS) 2020. – doi:10.1073/pnas.2004904117



Historical records reveal the temporal patterns of a sequence of plague epidemics in London, United Kingdom, from the 14th to 17th centuries. Analysis of these records shows that later epidemics spread significantly faster (“accelerated”). Between the Black Death of 1348 and the later epidemics that culminated with the Great Plague of 1665, we estimate that the epidemic growth rate increased fourfold. Currently available data do not provide enough information to infer the mode of plague transmission in any given epidemic; nevertheless, order-of-magnitude estimates of epidemic parameters suggest that the observed slow growth rates in the 14th century are inconsistent with direct (pneumonic) transmission. We discuss the potential roles of demographic and ecological factors, such as climate change or human or rat population density, in driving the observed acceleration.



The database of this article comes from historical records – the London Bills of Mortality, Parish registers, and wills and testaments. The last ones are the only reliable source for the 14th c. which allows a statistical approach. It seems remarkable to me, that no historian was a member of the team of authors, but the data used come  from the commercial company ancestry Corporate. Data series as the ones used in the PNAS articles are extremely significant, but digital publications of this kind of data are still insufficient.


Rainer Schreg


professor in medieval and postmedieval archaeology at Bamberg university

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Second Pandemic Plague Genomes from Poland and Russia

Morozova, I. et al. New ancient Eastern European Yersinia pestis genomes illuminate the dispersal of plague in Europe. Philos. Trans. R. Soc. B 375:20190569 (2020) doi:10.1098/rstb.2019.0569


Yersinia pestis, the causative agent of plague, has been prevalent among humans for at least 5000 years, being accountable for several devastating epidemics in history, including the Black Death. Analyses of the genetic diversity of ancient strains of Y. pestis have shed light on the mechanisms of evolution and the spread of plague in Europe. However, many questions regarding the origins of the pathogen and its long persistence in Europe are still unresolved, especially during the late medieval time period. To address this, we present four newly assembled Y. pestis genomes from Eastern Europe(Poland and Southern Russia), dating from the fifteenth to eighteenth century AD. The analysis of polymorphisms in these genomes and their phylogenetic relationships with other ancient and modern Y. pestis strains may suggest several independent introductions of plague into Eastern Europe or its persistence in different reservoirs. Furthermore, with the reconstruction of a partial Y. pestis genome from rat skeletal remains found in a Polish ossuary, we were able to identify a potential animal reservoir in late medieval Europe. Overall, our results add new information concerning Y. pestis transmission and its evolutionary history in Eastern Europe.

Second Pandemic Plague Genomes From Riga

Susat, J. et al. Yersinia pestis strains from Latvia show depletion of the pla virulence gene at the end of the second plague pandemic. Scientific Reports 10:14628 (2020), doi:10.1038/s41598-020-71530-9


Ancient genomic studies have identified Yersinia pestis (Y. pestis) as the causative agent of the second plague pandemic (fourteenth–eighteenth century) that started with the Black Death (1,347–1,353). Most of the Y. pestis strains investigated from this pandemic have been isolated from western Europe, and not much is known about the diversity and microevolution of this bacterium in eastern European countries. In this study, we investigated human remains excavated from two cemeteries in Riga (Latvia). Historical evidence suggests that the burials were a consequence of plague outbreaks during the seventeenth century. DNA was extracted from teeth of 16 individuals and subjected to shotgun sequencing. Analysis of the metagenomic data revealed the presence of Y. pestis sequences in four remains, confirming that the buried individuals were victims of plague. In two samples, Y. pestis DNA coverage was sufficient for genome reconstruction. Subsequent phylogenetic analysis showed that the Riga strains fell within the diversity of the already known post‑Black Death genomes. Interestingly, the two Latvian isolates did not cluster together. Moreover, we detected a drop in coverage of the pPCP1 plasmid region containing the pla gene. Further analysis indicated the presence of two pPCP1 plasmids, one with and one without the pla gene region, and only one bacterial chromosome, indicating that the same bacterium carried two distinct pPCP1 plasmids. In addition, we found the same pattern in the majority of previously published post‑Black Death strains, but not in the Black Death strains. The pla gene is an important virulence factor for the infection of and transmission in humans. thus, the spread of pla‑depleted strains may, among other causes, have contributed to the disappearance of the second plague pandemic in eighteenth century Europe.

Tropical Diseases in late medieval Northern Europe

K. Giffin/A. K. Lankapalli/S. Sabin u. a., A treponemal genome from an historic plague victim supports a recent emergence of yaws and its presence in 15th century Europe. Scientific Reports 10, 1, 2020, e36666.
doi: 10.1038/s41598-020-66012-x


The “application of a non-targeted molecular screening tool for the parallel detection of pathogens in historical plague victims from post-medieval Lithuania” enabled a Jena based research team to show ” the presence of more than one active disease in one individual. In addition to Yersinia pestis, we detected and genomically characterized a septic infection of Treponema pallidum pertenue, a subtype of the treponemal disease family recognised as the cause of the tropical disease yaws. Our finding in northern Europe of a disease that is currently restricted to equatorial regions is interpreted within an historical framework of intercontinental trade and potential disease movements. Through this we offer an alternative hypothesis for the history and evolution of the treponemal diseases, and posit that yaws be considered an important contributor to the sudden epidemic of late 15th century Europe that is widely ascribed to syphilis. “

For a German media report see:


Rainer Schreg

archaeologist professor in medieval and postmedieval archaeology at Bamberg university

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Bronze Age plague from Lake Baikal

Along with the publication of 19 ancient human genomes from Paleolithic to Bronze Age Lake Baikal, Yu et al. published two Y. pestis genomes. Remarkably, the two individuals carrying plague show no Yamnaya-related ancestry, in contrast to all previously identified individuals infected with this LNBA plague branch. Another suprising result is that the closest Y. pestis strain in the phylogeny published so far was found in Estonia (Kunila2).

Yu, H. et al. Paleolithic to Bronze Age Siberians Reveal Connections with First Americans and across Eurasia. Cell [in press] (2020) doi:10.1016/j.cell.2020.04.037


Modern humans have inhabited the Lake Baikal region since the Upper Paleolithic, though the precise history of its peoples over this long time span is still largely unknown. Here, we report genome-wide data from 19 Upper Paleolithic to Early Bronze Age individuals from this Siberian region. An Upper Paleolithic genome shows a direct link with the First Americans by sharing the admixed ancestry that gave rise to all non-Arctic Native Americans. We also demonstrate the formation of Early Neolithic and Bronze Age Baikal populations as the result of prolonged admixture throughout the eighth to sixth millennium BP. Moreover, we detect genetic interactions with western Eurasian steppe populations and reconstruct Yersinia pestis genomes from two Early Bronze Age individuals without western Eurasian ancestry. Overall, our study demonstrates the most deeply divergent connection between Upper Paleolithic Siberians and the First Americans and reveals human and pathogen mobility across Eurasia during the Bronze Age.


The Microbiology of early Globalisation

Blog Entry based on an updated extract from my book “Jenseits von Rom und Karl dem Großen” (Vienna 2018):


Byzantinist/medievalist at the Austrian Academy of Sciences with a tendency to experiment with concepts and methodologies from global/environmental history, complexity studies, network analysis.

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Rezension: Die Archäozoologie der Pest

Ptolemaios Dimitrios Paxinos
Die Archäozoologie der Pest. 
Die Auswirkungen des Schwarzen Todes (1347-1350) auf Tierhaltung und Viehnutzung im Gebiet des heutigen Deutschland
Documenta Archaeobiologiae 12
Rahden: Leidorf 2017.

Hardcover, 318 S., 101 Abbildungen, 81 Tabellen.
ISBN 978-3-89646-628-0

Rezension im Original in:

Archäologische Informationen 42, 2019, im Early View, online publiziert 12. Jan. 2019 im Early View als PDF unter CC BY 4.0

Die Archäobiologie hat in den vergangenen Jahren wichtige neue Beiträge zur Geschichte der Pest geliefert. Genetische Studien haben das Bakterium Yersinia pestis als Erreger des Schwarzen Todes im 14. Jahrhundert bestätigt, dabei aber auch gezeigt, dass es kurz vor dem beprobten Massengrab von London-Smithfield zu einer Mutation des Erregers gekommen ist (Bos u. a., 2011; Bos u.a., 2012). Damit stellt sich die Frage nach den Voraussetzungen der Epidemie und speziell nach dem Einfluss der Kulturlandschaft. Diese war nach dem sog. Landesausbau und den regional verschiedenen Prozessen der Dorfgenese in den vorausgehenden Generationen unter den Bedingungen der beginnenden Kleinen Eiszeit im 14. Jahrhundert starkem ökologischem Stress ausgesetzt. Langfristige Veränderungen ihrer Biotope, aber auch kurzfristige Extremwetter wie die sog. Magdalenenflut kurz vor der Ernte 1342 haben sicher auch die Nager als Reservoir und Überträger von Yersinia pestis – die ja eigentlich eine Nagerkrankheit ist – betroffen.

Das Thema der Dissertation von Ptolemaios Dimitrios Paxinos sind aber weder die archäogenetischen Nachweise von Yersinia pestis noch die Voraussetzungen oder Auswirkungen des Schwarzen Tods selbst. Ziel ist es vielmehr, mit den Methoden „konventioneller“ zooarchäologischer Forschung zur Pest herauszufinden, wie die Menschen mit der viel umfassenderen Krise umgegangen sind. Welche mittel- und langfristigen Veränderungen ergaben sich daraus für Viehwirtschaft und Ernährung? Ob man die Entwicklung des 14. Jahrhunderts tatsächlich als „Krise“ begreifen möchte oder nicht (Schreg, 2011), spielt hier eine untergeordnete Rolle.

Paxinos gliedert seine Arbeit in vier Teile. Teil 1 umfasst die Einführung in das Thema, die Darstellung der Quellenlage und der angewandten Methoden (S. 15-46). Teil 2 (S. 47-78) präsentiert die regionale Skalenebene, für die die Untersuchungen an den Tierknochen zweier konkreter Fundplätze vorgestellt werden. Das sind zum einen der Kölner Dom und zum anderen der Fischmarkt in Konstanz, wobei Paxinos erstere auf Grundlage eigener Bestimmungen, letztere auf Basis der Publikation von Priloff (2000) sowie der zur Verfügung gestellten Primärdaten analysiert.

Teil 3 (S. 79-118) betrifft die überregionale Ebene und vergleicht dazu die Tierknochenfunde von 173 Fundplätzen. Der abschließende Teil 4 (S. 119-138) liefert die Diskussion der Befunde und schließlich folgt ein umfangreicher Anhang mit Tabellen, aber ohne Bereitstellung weiternutzbarer digitaler Daten.

Das methodische Vorgehen, um einen aussagekräftigen Vorher-Nachher-Vergleich zu erhalten, ist schlau ausgeklügelt. Paxinos teilt seine Fundkomplexe in vier Perioden A bis D (S. 33 ff.), die jeweils weiter in 50-Jahresblöcke unterteilt werden – außer Periode B, welche die zweite Hälfte des 14. Jahrhunderts, also die Zeit unmittelbar nach der großen Pestepidemie von 1347 ff. umfasst. Bei diesem Perioden-System handelt es sich nicht um relativchronologische Stufen, wie wir sie als Archäologen gewohnt sind, sondern um eine Klassifikation der Fundkomplexe nach ihrer absoluten Datierung und der Möglichkeit ihrer chronologischen Zuweisung. Periode A bezeichnet im Allgemeinen den Zeitraum vor dem Schwarzen Tod. Er ist in vier Stufen unterteilt, wobei die Perioden A2 bis A4 den besonders relevanten Zeitraum zwischen 1200 und 1350 abdecken.

Periode A1 ist länger als die sonst angesetzten 50-Jahresschritte, da in der Realität viele, nämlich 57 Fundkomplexe auch noch ältere, frühund hochmittelalterliche Knochen beinhalten, die eben in dieser Periode A1 zusammengefasst sind.

Periode B beschränkt sich allein auf den kurzfristigen Zeitraum unmittelbar nach dem Schwarzen Tod, in dem sich Bevölkerungsrückgang und Wüstungsprozess fortsetzten. Daten, die in diese Periode fallen, zeigen also die kurzfristigen Auswirkungen der Pest. Nur in zwei Fundkomplexen – in dem des Kölner Doms und dem des Fischmarkts in Konstanz, die in Teil 2 detailliert ausgewertet werden – lassen sich tatsächlich Funde auf Periode B eingrenzen. Periode C ermöglicht mit insgesamt 19 Fundkomplexen die Erfassung langfristigerer Trends, da sie zweigeteilt das 15. Jahrhundert umfasst. Insgesamt 17 Komplexe sind dem 16. Jahrhundert als Periode D zuzuweisen.

Fundstellen mit geeigneten chronologisch differenzierbaren Funden des 14. Jh. sind also nicht besonders häufig. Auch Köln und Konstanz spiegeln aufgrund der jeweiligen Sekundärablagerung in der Kirche bzw. einer Landgewinnung am Seeufer nicht unmittelbar das Konsumverhaltens eines einzelnen Haushalts. Hinzu kommt, dass Handwerkerabfälle eine besondere Rolle spielen. So ist es trotz zahlreicher stadtarchäologischer Grabungen bisher nur bedingt gelungen, eine solide Datenbasis zu schaffen, die für eine gezielte übergreifende Fragestellung, wie sie Paxinos verfolgt, wirklich ausreichend wäre. Die besonders wichtigen Funde aus ländlichen Siedlungen fallen für eine Auswertung sogar völlig aus. Paxinos stellt S. 88 fest, dass sich die Datenbasis für ländliche Siedlungen gegenüber der Synthese von Benecke (1994) vor fast 25 Jahren kaum verbessert habe. Ländliche Siedlungen sind v.a. nach 1350 noch immer unterrepräsentiert (S. 33), obgleich die Wüstungsforschung seit dem 19. Jahrhundert ein nicht ganz unwesentliches Forschungsfeld darstellt. Angesichts des immensen Zuwachses denkmalpflegerischer Maßnahmen im Rahmen der immer wichtigeren privatwirtschaftlichen Archäologie ist das sehr bedenklich, denn offenbar gelingt es nicht, die zahllosen Rettungsgrabungen effektiv als historische Quellen in Wert zu setzen. Problematisch ist auch, dass gerade Latrinen und Brunnen, die Archäologen immer als besonders spannend erachten, im Hinblick auf die Praxis der Tierhaltung kaum auszuwerten sind, da hier besondere Prozesse einer primären Formation vorliegen.

Paxinos vergleicht auf Basis dieser chronologischen Einteilung (sowie einer regionalen Differenzierung) die Statur der Tiere, repräsentiert durch Robustheit und Widerristhöhe, die Geschlechtszusammensetzungen und die Altersspektren.

Die Analyse der Daten zeigt vielfältige Veränderungen auf. Das Rind beispielsweise nimmt in den Perioden A1 bis A3 mehr als die Hälfte des Fundmaterials ein, sinkt in Periode A4 bis B auf 44 % und steigt im 15. Jahrhundert kurzfristig auf 46,7 %, ehe es in Periode D nur noch bei 37,5 % liegt (S. 91). Auffallend – aber noch nicht ausreichend untersucht – ist die Beobachtung, dass Katzenfunde insbesondere in Latrinen nach der Pest zunehmen, sodass es zumindest denkbar erscheint, dass man der „bösen“ Katze eine Mitschuld an der Katastrophe gab und sie in der Folge häufiger tötete und im Müll entsorgte (S. 93). Allerdings könnte es auch sein, dass die steigende Zahl von Katzen mit einem erhöhten Rattenvorkommen zu tun hat. Letzteres kann Paxinos mit seinen Fundkomplexen nicht überprüfen. Hier deutet sich aber an, wie wichtig archäo-zoologische Untersuchungen auch an Kleintieren wie Nagern, aber auch Vögeln wären, da sie für das Verständnis von Epidemien, aber auch von Landschaftswandel gerade im Spätmittelalter grundlegend sind.

Basierend auf seiner Datenanalyse eröffnet Paxinos die Diskussion (Teil 4) mit der Arbeitshypothese, dass „die spätmittelalterliche Krise im Allgemeinen und der Schwarze Tod im Besonderen […] kurz- und/oder langfristig zu Veränderungen in der Viehnutzung des Spätmittelalters


. Diese Veränderungen spiegeln sich nicht nur in einer Verschiebung der wirtschaftlichen Bedeutung der einzelnen Nutztiere, sondern auch in einer Änderung ihres Phänotyps wider.” (S. 121). Die Kapitel 12 und 13 werten die Ergebnisse der Einzeluntersuchungen bzw. der überregionalen Untersuchung aus und zeigen, dass es im 14. Jahrhundert die postulierten kurz- und langfristige Veränderungen tatsächlich gegeben hat. Die Untersuchung der Größenparameter Robustheit und Größe belegt Veränderungen bei der Haltung und Fütterung der wichtigsten Nutztiere während des Spätmittelalters. Die Rinder aus Köln und Konstanz beispielsweise sind im Zeitraum von hundert Jahren nach der Pest deutlich kleiner und zierlicher.

Letztlich kann der Band die Frage nicht klären, inwiefern der beobachtete Wandel tatsächlich ursächlich mit der Pest zusammenhängt. Methodisch hat Paxinos hier den Weg einer Korrelation beschritten, der bestenfalls ein zeitliches und räumliches Zusammenfallen feststellen, aber keine Aussagen zu Wirk- und Kausalzusammenhängen liefern kann. Der fragestellungsorientierte Fokus auf das 14. Jahrhundert wird hier insofern problematisch, als kaum zu erfassen ist, wie stark die normale Variabilität in der Zeit ist und inwiefern dem 14. Jahrhundert tatsächlich die Qualität einer Zäsur zukommt.

Plausible Erklärungen sind nur aus der Perspektiveder Humanökologie zu gewinnen, diedann in Hypothesen und konkrete Fragen umzusetzensind. Möchte man die tatsächlich wichtigeFrage nach der Krise des 14. Jahrhunderts klären,so muss mittels DNA-Untersuchungen die Geschichteund Verbreitung von Yersinia pestis weiter geklärt und der Wandel der mittelalterlichen Kulturlandschaft auf seine Auswirkungen auf Biotope, Biodiversität, Mikroklima und Böden untersucht werden (vgl. Schreg, 2011). Die Routinearbeit der Denkmalpflege, die allein die nötige Quantität an Daten liefern könnte, ist damit hoffnungslos überfordert, denn es müssten beispielsweise gezielt auch die Knochen von kleinen Nagern und Vögeln ausgeschlämmt werden, Proben für die Genetik bereitgestellt werden, archäobotanische Umweltrekonstruktionen realisiert und Off-site-Archive viel mehr in den Fokus der Denkmalpflege genommen werden als es derzeit denkmalpolitisch und finanziell zu leisten ist.

Noch aber scheint auch im Fach – egal ob an den Universitäten oder der Denkmalpflege – kaum Bewusstsein für die Bedeutung dieser „theoretischen” Fragen und für die methodischen Ansätze vorhanden zu sein. Paxinos deutet die weiteren Zusammenhänge nur an, doch zeigt seine Arbeit mustergültig, welches historische Potenzial in der Archäozoologie steckt, und dass sie mehr ist als eine Artenliste der Tierknochenfunde – sofern den Knochen bei Ausgrabung und Publikation die gebührende Aufmerksamkeit und Sorgfalt geschenkt wird. Paxinos leistet einen wichtigen Beitrag zur Weiterentwicklung von Fragestellung und Methoden und es ist zu wünschen, dass die auf den ersten Blick sehr spezielle Arbeit breit rezipiert wird.


  • Benecke, N. (1994). Archäozoologische Studien zur Entwicklung der Haustierhaltung in Mitteleuropa und Südskandinavien von den Anfängen bis zum ausgehenden Mittelalter. (Schriften zur Ur- und Frühgeschichte 46). Berlin: Akademie-Verlag.
  • Bos, K. I., Schuenemann, V. J., Golding, G. B. u. a. (2011). A draft genome of Yersinia pestis from victims of the Black Death. Nature 478, 7370, 2011, 506–510.
  • Bos, K. I., Stevens, P., Nieselt, K., Poinar, H. N., DeWitte, S. N., Krause, J., Gilbert, M. T. P. (2012). Yersinia pestis: New Evidence for an Old Infection. PLoS ONE 7,11, 2012, e49803.
  • Prillof, R.-J. (2000). Tierknochen aus dem mittelalterlichen Konstanz. Eine archäozoologische Studie zur Ernährungswirtschaft und zum Handwerk im Hoch- und Spätmittelalter. (Materialhefte zur Archäologie in Baden-Württemberg 50). Stuttgart: Theiss.
  • Schreg, R. (2011). Die Krisen des Späten Mittelalter – Perspektiven, Probleme, Potentiale. In F. Daim, D. Gronenborn & R. Schreg (Hrsg.), Strategien zum Überleben. Umweltkrisen und ihre Bewältigung. (RGZMTagungen 11). (S. 195-214). Mainz: RGZM.

 Rainer Schreg

Rainer Schreg

archaeologist professor in medieval and postmedieval archaeology at Bamberg university

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CfP EAA Barcelona 2018: Re‐thinking medieval and early modern pestilences from a biosocial perspective: advanced methods and renewed concepts in archaeological sciences

EAA Barcelona 2018 – 5‐8 September 2018
Call for Papers and Posters
Deadline: 15 February 2018
Re‐thinking medieval and early modern pestilences from a biosocial perspective: advanced methods and renewed concepts in archaeological sciences

While contagious diseases have affected the human species since its origins, great medieval epidemics (e.g. plague, leprosy, tuberculosis) have sparked particular interest for decades. In recent years, archaeology has played an increasing role in the scientific study of medieval pestilences, notably by providing reliable data on both the paleobiology of epidemic victims and their burial treatment. Despite the various breakthroughs reached by interdisciplinary research, the study of past epidemics still needs to get improved, particularly through an integrated analysis of biological and social dimensions of these diseases, which are closely interrelated. We invite contributions regarding both recent methodological advances in the retrospective diagnosis of infectious diseases and the output of archaeological sciences on social and cultural factors acting in human populations’ adaptability to these diseases.

The session shall address various questions, among which:
– What are the new lines of research and future perspectives in paleopathological and palaeomicrobiological study of these diseases?
– What information paleobiological data derived from skeletal assemblages can provide on the epidemiological characteristics of the diseases?
– What was the endemicity of diseases in various places, how did they evolve over time, and how did various diseases competed each other?
– How funerary archaeology and textual sources contributes to reappraise the history of these diseases (e.g. attitudes towards the victims in terms of their integration and/or exclusion, depending on the time period and cultural framework)?
– Which methodological implementation would be desirable in the future to allow retrospective diagnosis of still poorly-known diseases (e.g. ergotism)?

Keywords: Archaeology, Paleomicrobiology, Paleopathology, Medieval, Epidemics

Session details:
– Session theme: Theories and methods in archaeological sciences
– Session ID: #413
– Session type: Session, made up of a combination of papers, max. 15 minutes each
Session organizers:
– Dr. Dominique Castex, CNRS, UMR 5199 – PACEA, Université de Bordeaux, Pessac, France,
– Dr. Mark Guillon, Inrap, UMR 5199 – PACEA, Université de Bordeaux, Pessac, France,
– Maria Spyrou, Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, Jena, Germany,
– Marcel Keller, Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, Jena, Germany,
– Dr. Sacha Kacki, Department of Archaeology, Durham University, United Kingdom,

Abstract submission deadline:
15 February 2018

If you are interested to submit a Paper or Poster proposal, please use the conference website at
Further information, including registration details, general and practical information, etc. can be found on the conference website

Invalidation of early-phase transmission as an epizootic and epidemiological theory

Dear colleagues,

New plague research has just been published with particular importance for the discussion of the early-phase transmission and transmission by proventricular blockage. B.J. Hinnebusch, Senior Investigator at the Laboratory of Zoonotic Pathogens, NIH, NIAID, Rocky Mountain Laboratories, has long been one of the sharpest critics of the early-phase theory of transmission, see, for instance, his article “Biofilm-Dependent and Bio-Film-Independent Mechanisms of using Transmission of Yersinia pestis by Fleas”, Advances in Experimental Medicine and Biology, 954; 2012:  237‒243. In these days, he publishes with co-authors an evidently crucial article on this topic: Hinnebusch, B.J. Bland, D.M., Bosio, C.F., Jarrett, C.O., “Comparative Ability of Oropsylla montana and Xenopylla cheopis Fleas to transmitt Yersinia pestis by two Different Mechanisms” PLOS Neglected Tropical Diseases | DOI: 10…1371/journal.pntd.0005276 January 12, 2017: 1-15.

They used fleas of Oropsylla montana provided by two of the central advocates of the early-phase theory, which excludes that different strains of this flea could affect the outcome. The conventional vector of plague ‘par excellence’, Xenopsylla cheopis, was used for comparison. Contrary to earlier assertions by the advocates of the early-phase theory that Oropsylla montana rarely develop proventricular blockage, it was shown to block earlier and surviving longer after becoming blocked than X. Cheopis, and that transmission by blockage was as good as or better than observed for X. cheopis. This (re)confirmed earlier research on the vector capacity of this species of flea (see, e.g., the fully referenced comments in my monograph The Black Death and Later Plague Epidemic in the Scandinavian Countries, 2016: 377, 403, 630, 658).

In this article, the early-phase theory is dismantled as an important or significant means or mechanism of transmission of plague. In a personal communication by email of 01.03.17, Hinnebusch states that “In fact, I think early-phase transmission only has a role in very special circumstances, such as during an epizootic of plague in a dense [rodent] population that is both highly susceptible (LD50< 10) and that routinely develops very high bacteremia levels (>108 to 109 Y. pestis/ml) before death.  High flea density is also a likely precondition, as intermittent challenges from just a few fleas at a time would frequently lead to resistance rather than productive, transmissible disease (bacteremia).”

This also means that early-phase transmission is of no significance in plague epidemics, except perhaps, at the individual level, the occasional transmission of immunity-inducing tiny doses of plague bacteria (that will be easily dealt with by the human immune apparatus). It will also become clear that Hinnebusch et al. corroborate and deepen earlier plague research: it is pointed out that this type of early-phase transmission was identified by the Indian Plague Research Commission (IPRC) in 1907 and that the pioneering studies of Bacot of the IPRC on blockage in fleas IPRC 1914 and 1915, are still tenable and relevant. The bibliography contains studies from the entire 1900s, not least 1940s, which have kept their value as fine research.

Finally, I will point out that my recently published monograph contains a long study of early-phase transmission in Chapter 12: 625-655 (with bibliographic references included in the General Bibliography). Its conclusions and basic analysis agree with this recent study by Hinnebusch et al.

Kind regards,

Ole J. Benedictow,

Emeritus Professor

Ole Benedictow – Introduction & new publication

Dear all,

My monograph The Black Death and Later Plague Epidemics in the Scandinavian Countries: Perspectives and Controversies, Berlin: De Greuter, pp. 736, has just appeared: it is published in hardcover edition and also on the Internet in the form of Open access, De Greuter Open, . The book provides much new work on the Black Death, but also translations of works that so far has not been available in English. It also contains several long chapters that relate thoroughly to questions and controversies with respect to the presence of black rats in the Nordic countries (pp. 395-451 with three maps), transmission and dissemination by human ectoparasites, and the early-phase transmission theory or hypothesis rather (as long its advocates cannot explain how pathogenic doses of plague bacteria in the foregut of fleas are moved into a new bite site against the strong stream of a new blood meal).

This involves also the gathering together and presentation of all data on plague bacteraemia in rats and human beings to clarify their potential roles as sources of infection of feeding fleas and lice, the prevalence of bacteremia in rats and human beings measured as number of plague bacteria per mL (mm3) of blood, the volume of blood fleas or lice ingest (µL), and, thus, the potential role of human ectoparasites and rat fleas in the transmission and dissemination of plague bacteria. Finally, there is discussion of border values of Lethal Doses of transmission in the case of human beings and the presence and conditions for transmission of LDs of plague bacteria. There are also studies of the pattern, rhythm and seasonality of the spread of plague epidemics as reflections of and, thus, sources of information on the processes of transmission and dissemination.

The introductory general chapter on plague contains also two specific subchapters that really are lengthy articles. In Chapter 1.5, all paleobiological data on finds of aDNA or F1 antigen of Y. pestis in putative plague graves are gathered together with a comprehensive presentation of the research history and achievements of the new discipline of paleobiology in plague-related research, pp. 73-99. Chapter 1.4, reverts to the topic of alternative theories of plague, in this case an epidemiological alternative, which so far has not been addressed seriously and critically: ‘Serious Plague History under Pressure: The Twelfth Theory of Historical Plague. Comments on the Recent paper “Climate-driven Introductions of the Black Death and Successive Plague Reintroductions into Europe”, pp. 35-72. The relevant points on the role of human ectoparasites in the epidemiology of plague are discussed in the chapters mentioned above.

I will be grateful for all critical and supplementary reactions, which can come to good use now that my English publisher has asked me to write a 2nd edn. of my monograph on the Black Death and I am working on it to the hilt. This is also the case with respect to my previous monograph What Disease was Plague? On the Controversy over the Microbiological Identity of Plague Epidemics of the Past, Leiden: Brill , pp. 746.

Happy New Year to all,

Ole J. Benedictow
Emeritus Professor,
Department of History,
University of Oslo

EAA Vilnius 2016: Session report on “Plague in diachronic and interdisciplinary perspective”

The following session report by Doris Gutsmiedl-Schümann (Freie Universität Berlin, Germany), Sacha Kacki (Université de Bordeaux, France), Marcel Keller (MPI-SHH Jena, Germany) and Christina Lee (University of Nottingham, UK) will be published in The European Archaeologist. With kind permission of the EAA.

Edit 17-02-07: filmed talks are now linked under the respective name.


Plague, an infectious disease caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis, occurred in at least three major historical pandemics: the Justinianic Plague (6th to 8th century), the Black Death (1348-1352, with further epidemic outbreaks until the 18th century), and the Modern or Hong Kong Plague (19th to 20th century). However, it appears that the disease may be much older: DNA from Bronze Age human skeleton has recently shown that plague first emerged at least as early as 3000 BC. As any disease, plague has both a biological as well as a social dimension. Different disciplines can therefore explicate different aspects of plague which can lead to a better understanding of the disease and its medical and social implications.

The session was held on 2nd September 2016 as part of the 22nd Annual Meeting of the EAA with the aim of bringing together researchers from different disciplines who work on plague. It addressed a series of research questions, such as:

  • Which disciplines can contribute to the research on plague?
  • What are their methodological possibilities and the limitations of their methodologies?
  • How can different disciplines work together in order to gain a more realistic and detailed picture of plague in different periods and regions?
  • How did different societies react to plague? In which way may we prove or disprove evidence for such reactions – and which disciplines may contribute to the debate?
  • What where the common aspects, and what the differences of the various plague outbreaks? Are there any epidemiological characteristics that are essential and/or unique to plague?
  • What are possible implications of the pandemic spread and endemic occurrence of plague through the ages for the interpretation of historical and cultural phenomena?

Continue reading EAA Vilnius 2016: Session report on “Plague in diachronic and interdisciplinary perspective”

Introduction – Marcel Keller

I am a PhD student in the department Archaeogenetics of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Jena, Germany. My academic background is Biology (B.Sc./M.Sc.) with specialization in Anthropology and Human Biology. The main project of my PhD is the reconstruction of genomes of Yersinia pestis of both the first (Justinianic Plague) and second pandemic (following the Black Death) in Europe. Additional ancient genomes of Y. pestis are crucial for phylogenetic analyses and allow a more detailed picture of the spatiotemporal distribution of plague.

Introduction – Giuseppe Muci

I’m an archaeologist and third-year PhD candidate in Science for Cultural Heritage at the University of Salento (Lecce, in southern Italy). My main fields of interest are landscape and settlement pattern changes in southern Italy from the Late Antique to the Early Modern period, with a specific focus on the transition between Late Medieval and Modern times. In my analyses of socio-economic dynamics I’m trying to link demographic data mainly collected from fiscal sources and settlements data collectet through archaological surveys in the region; the final aim is to understand if subsistence crises could have played a main role in the 14th century demographic decline . In addition to historical and archaological dataset, I make use of quantitative methods and GIS theoretical modelling to analyse human dynamics and settlement trends. On my page you can find a pair of papers focused on the analysis of demographic trends and agrarian sustainability during the Late Middle Ages in Terra d’Otranto province (


Medieval archaeologist and PhD Fellow in “Science for Cultural Heritage” at the University of Salento, Italy.

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