New research on one of history’s most devastating plagues shows that it spread farther than previously believed, reaching post–Roman Britain, and provides new information about the plague bacteria’s evolution during a pandemic that lasted more than 200 years.
The work, conducted by an interdisciplinary team from Harvard University and the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Germany, covered 21 archaeological sites across Europe and the Mediterranean that date to the time of the Justinianic Plague, which first struck in 541 A.D. and returned in multiple waves until 750.
Samples taken from human remains at the sites were examined for the DNA of Yersinia pestis, the bacterium known to cause the plague, which centuries later swept across Europe in perhaps history’s most famous pandemic, the Black Death, which may have killed as many as half of all Europeans.
Though less widely known, the Justinianic plague is believed to have been nearly as deadly. It began during the reign of Emperor Justinian, who ruled the Roman Empire’s eastern portion from his capital in Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul), after the fall of Rome and the western portion of the empire. The pandemic centered on Constantinople and ports around the Mediterranean. Though reports from the time say the first plague outbreak killed half the population, scholars of the era disagree on its impact. Some argue that, though deadly, it played little role in shaping the society and the economy. Others argue that it had the potential for history-altering impacts on a wide array of human activities.
Such impacts, however, remain unproven and are the subject of active investigation by the research team, which includes historians, archaeologists, and experts in ancient DNA under the auspices of the 20-month-old Max Planck-Harvard Research Center for the Archaeoscience of the Ancient Mediterranean (MHAAM).