Bubonic Plague Traced to Ancient Egypt

Cameron Walker
for National Geographic News
March 10, 2004

The bubonic plague, or Black Death, may have originated in ancient Egypt, according to a new study.

"This is the first time the plague's origins in Egypt have been backed up by archaeological evidence," said Eva Panagiotakopulu, who made the discovery. Panagiotakopulu is an archaeologist and fossil-insect expert at the University of Sheffield, England.

While most researchers consider central Asia as the birthplace of the deadly epidemic, the new study—published recently in the Journal of Biogeography—suggests an alternate starting point.

"It's usually thought that the plague entered from the East," said B. Joseph Hinnebusch, a microbiologist at Rocky Mountain Laboratories in Hamilton, Montana. The new study suggests that North Africa could also be the source of the epidemic, he said.

The bacteria-caused plague is more than a grim historical footnote today. The African island of Madagascar experienced outbreaks in the late 1990s, and some worry about the plague's potential use as an agent of bioterrorism.

Information about past epidemics could help scientists predict where new outbreaks would occur and better understand how the disease spreads, Hinnebusch said.

Plague in Europe

The most famous plague outbreak swept through Europe in the 1300s. Dubbed the Black Death, the disease killed more than 25 million people—one-fourth of the continent's population. The nursery rhyme "Ring Around the Rosy" is traced to the plague's rose-colored lesions and deadly spread.

Earlier outbreaks also decimated Europe. The Justinian Plague claimed as many as a hundred million lives in the Byzantine Empire during the sixth century A.D.

The bacterium that causes bubonic plague, Yersinia pestis, lives inside the gut of its main carrier, the flea. The plague likely spread to Europe on the backs of shipboard black rats that carried plague-infested fleas.

"It's the plague's unholy trinity," said Michael Antolin, a biologist at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, who studies bubonic plague in black-tailed prairie dogs.

Inside the flea, bacteria multiply and block off the flea's throat-like area. The flea gets increasingly hungry. When it bites—whether rat or human—it spits some bacteria out into the bite wound.

Continued on Next Page >>


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