Genetic Evidence of Typhoid and Plague Causing Pathogens Found in DNA of Ancient Civilizations

Scientists had attributed the fall of several ancient civilizations, including the Akkadian Empire, the ancient kingdom of Egypt, to factors such as climate change and shifting allegiances. However, a new study suggests that it could be due to certain extinct pathogens. Archaeologists from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology have excavated the remains of an ancient burial site in Crete, Greece, called Hagios Charalambos. There they found genetic evidence of two bacteria that cause typhoid and the plague.

The team, led by archaeologists Gunnar Neumann, chose the site for its cool and stable conditions, as DNA tends to degrade at higher temperatures. They started by digging into ancient bones and recovered DNA from the teeth of 32 people who died between 2290 and 1909 BCE.

In the genetic data, the team found common oral bacteria. In two of the individuals, they detected the presence of Y. pestis, while in the other two individuals, two lines of the bacterium Salmonella enterica, responsible for typhoid fever, were found. The results indicated that both pathogens existed during Bronze Age Crete and were possibly transmissible at that time.

Although the route of transmission of these pathogens was unclear to the researchers, they noted that the S. enterica lineages found did not exhibit traits responsible for severe disease in humans.

“Although it is unlikely that Y. pestis Where S. enterica were solely responsible for the societal changes observed in the Mediterranean at the end of the 3rd millennium BCE, we propose that, given the ancient DNA evidence presented here, infectious diseases should be considered an additional contributing factor; possibly in an interaction with climate and migration, which has already been suggested,” the researchers wrote in their research paper published in Current biology

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