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Genetic Impact of the Black Death

The Black Death, one of the deadliest pandemics in European history, killed nearly half the population of Europe during its seven year reign. Recent improvements in archaeological and forensic research methods have shed light on the plague’s causes and long-reaching consequences.

DNA analysis of plague victims has revealed the culprit pathogen to be a strain of bacteria called Yersinia pestis, a strain of bacteria that is still active today. Since this discovery, people have wondered why this outbreak was so severe and why it hasn’t resurfaced as virulently since. The assumption, until recently, has been that this was a particularly aggressive strain of the bacteria. However, in a May 7th article published in the journal PLOS ONE, University of South Carolina anthropologist Sharon DeWitte suggests that the reason may not lay with the bacteria at all.

“Genetic analysis of 14th century Y. pestis has not revealed significant functional differences in the ancient and modern strains," DeWitte says. "This suggests that we need to consider other factors such as the characteristics of humans in order to understand changes in the disease over time."

By examining the skeletons of plague victims and survivors, DeWitte’s team made several discoveries. The pre-plague life expectancy in 14th century England was about 35 years. Post-plague populations could expect to live into their 70s and 80s. Survivors and their descendants, in addition to longer life, could also expect a healthier life. To explain these findings, Dewitte has hypothesised that the post-plague populations were a genetically heartier population.

 Websites:

Nonfiction Books:

 African Exodus: the Origins of Modern Humanity, Christopher Stringer and Robin McKie
A crash course in the latest theories of human evolution, drawing on fossil and genetic evidence to explain the emergence of modern humans out of Africa less than 100,000 years ago, this book shows that the apparent racial distinctions of modern humans are merely geographical variants.

 

 The Black Death, Philip Ziegler
An historian's account of the origins, nature and extent of the widespread destruction caused by the plague of the mid-14th century.

 

 

 Encyclopedia of Plague and Pestilence: From Ancient Times to the Present, George Childs Kohn, editor
This volume provides descriptions of 700 epidemics, listed alphabetically by location of the outbreak. Each entry includes when and where a particular epidemic began, how and why it happened, who it affected, how it spread and ran its course and its outcome and significance.

 

 Evolving: the Human Effect and Why it Matters, Daniel J. Fairbanks
The author uses evidence from archaeology, geography, anatomy, biochemistry, radiometric dating, cell biology, chromosomes and DNA to establish how we evolved and are still evolving. He also explains in detail how health, food production and human impact on the environment are dependent on our knowledge of evolution.

 

 The Great Mortality: An Intimate History of the Black Death, the Most Devastating Plague of All Time, John Kelly
Kelly's book paints a vivid picture of what the end of the world looked like, circa 1348 and 1349. Interweaving a modern scientific analysis with an examination of medieval medicine, superstition and bigotry, The Great Mortality achieves an air of immediacy, authenticity and intimacy rarely seen in literature on the plague.

 
 Plague : a Story of Science, Rivalry, and the Scourge That Won't Go Away, Edward Marriott.
At once a reconstruction of the race to find a cure, a history of bubonic plague and an investigation into the threat of plague today, Marriott unravels the story of this lethal disease. Through primary sources, Marriott takes us back to Hong Kong in the summer of 1894, when a diagnosis of plague brought rival scientists Alexandre Yersin and Shibasaburo Kitasato to the island in a race to discover the plague's source. 
 
 
 The Story of the Human Body: Evolution, Health, and Disease, Daniel E. Lieberman
A Harvard evolutionary biologist presents an engaging discussion of how the human body has evolved over millions of years, examining how an increasing disparity between the needs of Stone Age bodies and the realities of the modern world are fueling a paradox of greater longevity and chronic disease.
 
 
 
 The 10,000 Year Explosion: How Civilization Accelerated Human Evolution, Gregory Cochran and Henry Harpending 
Scientists have long believed that the "great leap forward" that occurred some 40,000 to 50,000 years ago in Europe marked the end of significant biological evolution in humans. In this stunningly original account of our evolutionary history, the authors reject this conventional wisdom and reveal that human evolution in fact accelerated after civilization arose and these ongoing changes have played a pivotal role in human history.
 
Fiction Books:
 
 The Black Death: A Personal History, John Hatcher
In this fresh approach to the history of the Black Death, Hatcher re-creates everyday life in a mid-14th century rural English village. By focusing on the experiences of ordinary villagers as they lived and died during the Black Death (1345-50), Hatcher places the reader directly inside those tumultuous times and describes in fascinating detail the day-to-day existence of people struggling with the tragic effects of the plague. 
 
 Company of Liars, Karen Maitland 
The year is 1348. The Black Plague grips the country. In a world ruled by faith and fear, nine desperate strangers, brought together by chance, attempt to outrun the certain death that is running inexorably toward them. 
 

 
 World Without End, Ken Follett.
Follett's epic novel takes place in the town of Kingsbridge, two centuries after the townspeople finished building the exquisite Gothic cathedral that was at the heart of The Pillars of the Earth. In a world where proponents of the old ways battle those with progressive minds, the intrigue and tension quickly reach a boiling point against the devastating backdrop of the greatest natural disaster ever to strike the human race -- the Black Death.
 
 
DVD:
 
 Birth of Civilization
Journey back 15,000 years to trace humankind's incredible journey through time. Beginning with humanity's exodus from the Ice Age and chronicling milestones such as hunter-gatherer, farmer, builder and city organizer. Reveals how humankind managed to survive and conquer the world. Explores the motivation of early humankind and its epic transformation to reveal the inspiring story of he invention of civilization.
 
 Black Death 
Europe has fallen under the shadow of the Black Death. As the plague decimates all in its path, fear and superstition are rife. There are rumors of a village, hidden in marshland that the plague cannot reach. There is even talk of a necromancer who leads the village and is able to bring the dead back to life. Ulric, a fearsome knight, is charged by the church to investigate these rumors.
 
 The Human Family Tree 
Join geneticist Spencer Wells and a team from National Geographic's Genographic Project as they trace the human journey through time, from our origins in the heart of Africa to the ends of the world. Cutting-edge science, coupled with a cast of New Yorkers -- each with their own unique genetic history -- helps paint a picture of these amazing journeys. 
 
 
 Journey of Man
How did the human race populate the world? A group of geneticists have worked on the question for a decade, arriving at a startling conclusion: the "global family tree" can be traced to one African man who lived 60,000 years ago. Dr. Spencer Wells hosts this innovative series, featuring commentary by expert scientists, historians, archaeologists and anthropologists.
 
 
 World Without End
Set in England during the 1300s, the series chronicles the lives of ordinary citizens as the King leads the nation into the Hundred Years' War with France, all while Europe is bracing for the Black Death. Caris, a visionary woman, and her lover Merthin build a community that stands up to the Crown and the church.
 
 
 

 


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