Black Death Was Airborne, Rats Off The Hook

Black Death Skeleton

The Black Death skeletons found in London have inspired a new theory, that the Black Death was airborne.

The Black Death was thought to have been carried by rats and their fleas, a theory taught in schools for generations. However, the mass graves discovered under London last year are leading scientists to conclude that the disease must have been airborne to spread so quickly and kill so many.

Dr Tim Brooks from Porton Down told The Guardian that “As an explanation [rat fleas] for the Black Death in its own right, it simply isn’t good enough. It cannot spread fast enough from one household to the next to cause the huge number of cases that we saw during the Black Death epidemics,”

The plague most likely spread from person-to-person, taking advantage of Londoners’ poor health at the time. Osteologist Don Walker, and Jelena Bekvalacs, of the Museum of London, cataloged a number of signs of malnutrition in the Black Death skeletons: bad teeth, anemia, and rickets. According to the wills registered at Court of Hustings, approximately 60% of the population was wiped out by the Black Death when it arrived in Britian in 1348.

Black Death has been known to be airborne before. In 1906 a family and their neighbor all died from the plague, which spread through coughing from the family to the neighbor who came to help. The strain of Black Death found on the teeth of the Charterhouse skeletons is practically identical to modern strains, meaning that the more recent 1906 case may still have bearing on the 1348 epidemic.

Today, Yersinia pestis can be treated with antibiotics, although 2,000 people still die globally from this virulent disease. Without antibiotics, Black Death victims die in about four days.

Jay Carver, Crossrail’s lead archaeologist at the Crossrail excavation site, expects to dig up more skeletons from graves hidden under Charterhouse Square in July, according to The Times of India.

Jay Carver explained the importance of the excavation. “This is probably the first time in modern archaeological investigation that we have finally found evidence for a burial ground in this area which potentially contains thousands of victims from the Black Death and potentially later plague events as well.”

The Black Death skeletons have already provided statistical data that simply was not available before, leading to Dr Tim Brook’s new theory.

Brooks will be presenting his theory in the BBC Channel documentary 4 Secret History: The Return of the Black Death, next Sunday.

photo credit: Annie Mole