Category Archives: Disciplines

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, https://www.degruyter.com/viewbooktoc/product/212904 . 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.

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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”

Marcel Keller

Co-Editor of the Black Death Network Postdoc in Palaeogenetics at U. of Tartu

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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.

Marcel Keller

Co-Editor of the Black Death Network Postdoc in Palaeogenetics at U. of Tartu

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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 Academia.edu 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 (https://unisalento.academia.edu/GiuseppeMuci).

gmuci

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

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Introduction – Joris Roosen

As a first year PhD-candidate, I am working within the “Coordinating for life” project at the University of Utrecht. The project aims to explain why some societies are successful in preventing the effects of major hazards and buffering threats, or in recovering quickly, while others prove highly vulnerable. My specific sub-project focuses on the subject of the Black Death and the recurring waves of plague in late medieval Europe.

My research aims to look at the institutional framework of three regions in order to ascertain why some regions were able to mitigate and recover quickly from the effects of the Black Death whilst others did not.

The regions I will be investigating are coastal Flanders, Picardy and Norfolk.

Ecological Approaches in Medieval Rural Archaeology

  • R. Schreg, Ecological Approaches in Medieval Rural Archaeology. European Journal of Archaeology 17(1), 2014, 83-119
    DOI 10.1179/1461957113Y.0000000045

    [There is currently no Open Access, sorry!].

In recent years, scientific methods of bio- and geoarchaeology have become increasingly important for archaeological research. Political changes since the 1990s have reshaped the archaeological community. At the same time environmental topics have gained importance in modern society, but the debate lacks an historical understanding. Regarding medieval rural archaeology, we need to ask how this influences our archaeological research on medieval settlements, and how ecological approaches fit into the self-concept of medieval archaeology as a primarily historical discipline. Based mainly on a background in German medieval archaeology, this article calls attention to more complex ecological research questions. Medieval village formation and the late medieval crisis are taken as examples to sketch some hypotheses and research questions. The perspective of a village ecosystem helps bring together economic aspects, human ecology and environmental history. There are several implications for archaeological theory as well as for archaeological practice. Traditional approaches from landscape archaeology are insufficient to understand the changes within village ecosystems. We need to consider social aspects and subjective recognition of the environment by past humans as a crucial part of human–nature interaction. Use of the perspective of village ecosystems as a theoretical background offers a way to examine individual historical case studies with close attention to human agency. Thinking in terms of human ecology and environmental history raises awareness of some interrelations that are crucial to understanding past societies and cultural change. (Abstract)

The article takes the late medieval crisis as an example for the complexity of interaction and proposes to understand the Black Death within the framework of human ecology.

Factors and hypothetical interactions during the late medieval crisis
Factors and hypothetical interactions during the late medieval crisis

 

 

 

Rainer Schreg

archaeologist professor in medieval and postmedieval archaeology at Bamberg university

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re: Livestock size change in the 14th century

For a little while now, I have been interested in identifying and explaining changes in the size of domestic livestock in the 14th century. This research was originally inspired by my analysis of the animal remains from Dudley Castle, West Midlands, UK, which revealed a statistically-significant increase in the size of cattle, sheep, pig, and even chicken, between two phases of occupation (1262-1321 and 1321-1397). These changes were much earlier than those documented at other sites (mostly 15th-17th century), and I interpreted them  within the context of altered tenurial and agricultural practices in the wake of the Black Death: Thomas, R. 2005. Zooarchaeology, improvement and the British Agricultural Revolution. International Journal of Historical Archaeology 9 (2): 71-88.

Since then, a number of additional sites have provided evidence of livestock size change in the 14th century – seemingly adding weight to this idea. Just recently, however, I have completed a collaborative project exploring size change in domestic livestock in medieval and early modern England, using data from London: Thomas, R., Holmes, M., and Morris, J. 2013. “So bigge as bigge may be”: tracking size and shape change in domestic livestock in London (AD 1220-1900). Journal of Archaeological Science 40 (8): 3309-3325.

In this study, we analysed 7966 individual cattle, sheep, pig and chicken bone measurements from 105 sites excavated in London dating to the period AD 1220–1900 and multiple episodes of size change were identified. The earliest evidence for size change in cattle and sheep occurs in the early 14th century: this is earlier than any previously documented instance of livestock size increase in the medieval period. The fact that only cattle and sheep witness size increase is interesting, given the major outbreaks of disease affecting these animals in the first quarter of the 14th century: sheep murrain was epidemic between 1314 and 1316, while a panzootic in cattle occurred between 1319 and 1322. Given the timing of the size increases and the fact that only cattle and
sheep are affected, re-stocking policies might be an obvious explanation. However, selective breeding from larger animals was probably not the cause: there is no zooarchaeological evidence for large livestock elsewhere in England and Wales in this period and the large-scale transnational cattle trade did not commence until the late 15th century. Perhaps, a temporary relative increase in mean size may have
occurred in the archaeological (death) assemblage, because of relatively lower slaughter rates of female cattle following the pestilence. This might be explained by the
fact that the slaughtering of females, which survived the panzootic, might have been delayed, to re-populate the herds; consequently, survivors were used for a longer period than would have normally been the case. Alternatively, the larger size of cattle and sheep may reflect the actions of natural selection. It is entirely conceivable that smaller, weaker animals were more susceptible to malnutrition and ultimately mortality, while the larger, healthier animals survived to perpetuate their genes.

At the moment I am fairly open about the most likely explanation, but I would welcome any thoughts if you have any.

Environmental damages in 14th century Southwest Germany

An interesting new study proves extreme  gullying in a landscape in Southwestern Germany.  By now there have been little indications that 1342 St. Magdalen’s flood had impact also on settlement landscapes in Southwest Germany.

Today this landscape – the southwestern Schönbuch natural park north of Tübingen – is completely forrested, but it must have been a rather open landscape vulnerable to erosion in the 14th century. In neighbouring settlements there are various indication for rural industries. There need for firing wood may have been an important factor for deforestation and environmental risk. A blog-post at Archaeologik discusses the archaeological evidence of settlement activity.

Documents from the town of  Esslingen, less than 30 km northwest of the gullies indicate that in fact rains in summer 1342 also affected the Neckar region (http://archaeologik.blogspot.de/2013/01/bodenerosion-1342-ein-rechtsstreit-in.html).

erosion gully in the southwestern Schönbuch forest northwest of Tübingen. Todya the landscape is completely forrested with little traces of medieval settlement.
(Foto: R. Schreg, 2013)

Rainer Schreg

archaeologist professor in medieval and postmedieval archaeology at Bamberg university

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Lepra in the Middle Ages

A new genetic study dealing with Lepra:
V. J. Schuenemann, P. Singh, T. A. Mendum, B. Krause-Kyora, G. Jäger et al., Genome-Wide Comparison of Medieval and Modern Mycobacterium leprae. Science (online 13.6.2013)

There have been several media reports in Germany. E.g. FAZ (19.6.2013)

Rainer Schreg

archaeologist professor in medieval and postmedieval archaeology at Bamberg university

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Introduction – Alison Atkin

I am a second-year PhD student at the University of Sheffield, in England.  The aim of my PhD project is to apply new theory and methods recently developed in palaeodemography to gain a deeper understanding of mass fatality incidents.  The current focus of this project is identifying the ‘lost’ plague victims from Medieval England.

Using a multi-disciplinary approach, combining demographic data from archaeological examples, along with evidence from contemporary documentary sources, my research project aims to identify episodes of mass mortality as a result of the Black Death in Medieval England, which to date have been mis- or un-identified in the archaeological record – and to discuss changes to burial practices and funerary rights during and after the Black Death.

y.p. genomes

Just a notice of two posts at Contagions, dealing with recent papers on y.p. genomes:

and at Bones don’t lie:

Rainer Schreg

archaeologist professor in medieval and postmedieval archaeology at Bamberg university

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