Between 430 and 426 BC, a devastating plague killed almost a third of the Athenian population and its armed forces, along with the city’s leader and mastermind of Athenian glory, Pericles. This epidemic, which spread across northern Africa to Egypt, Libya and Greece, is described in excruciating detail by the 5th century Greek historian Thucydides who writes of boils and pustules. Scientists have long debated its cause, citing bubonic plague, smallpox, anthrax and measles as possibles.

Now a University of Athens team has evidence that the killer was typhoid. The team has analysed DNA in three randomly selected intact human teeth found in the ancient cemetery of Kerameikos, which dates back to 430, and the outbreak of the disease.

They removed the dental pulp from the teeth which they then subjected to a series of DNA tests. The results were then compared with the DNA profiles of seven disease-causing viruses and bacteria. An ancient strain of the organism causing typhoid fever was found to be present in the dental pulp of all three dental samples, according to the study published in the International Journal of Infectious Diseases.

This is the first time microbiological evidence associated with the plague has been analysed. Earlier research rejected the idea that typhoid caused the plague because the symptoms described by Thucydides did not fit with the modern day typhoid. The researchers suggest that the inconsistencies may be explained by the possible evolution of typhoid fever over time.

Dr Daniel Antoine, lecturer in bioarchaeology and dental anthropology at University College London’s Institute of Archaeology, cautions against drawing conclusions from such a small sample. Speaking to CWA, Dr Antoine said: ‘More work still needs to be carried out, not least to eliminate the possibility that we are seeing an isolated outbreak of typhoid fever. Furthermore, another lab ought to repeat this work on a larger sample from a Greek site of the same period, before typhoid fever is attributed as the sole ’cause’ of the plague. Nonetheless, the results are very interesting’.


This article is an extract from the full article published in World Archaeology Issue 16. Click here to subscribe

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