1&2. Everest Shark, 2013. Bronze
3&4. Earth, 2011. Cast bronze
5. Little Boy Foot and Fin, 2008. Cast bronze and rubber found fin.
6. Heron, 2010. Taxidermied heron, antique sugan chair.
7. Forge, 2007. Cast bronze skull and iron anvil.
Scientists have reconstructed the genetic code of a strain of bacteria that caused one of the most deadly pandemics in history nearly 1,500 years ago.
They did it by finding the skeletons of people killed by the plague and extracting DNA from traces of blood inside their teeth.
This plague struck in the year 541, under the reign of the Roman emperor Justinian, so it’s usually called the Justinian plague. The emperor actually got sick himself but recovered. He was one of the lucky ones.
"Some of the estimates are that up to 50 million people died," says evolutionary biologist David Wagner at Northern Arizona University. “It’s thought that the Justinian plague actually led partially to the downfall of the Roman Empire.”
The plague swept through Europe, northern Africa and parts of Asia. Historians say that when it arrived in Constantinople, thousands of bodies piled up in mass graves. People started wearing name tags so they could be identified if they suddenly collapsed.
Given the descriptions, scientists suspected that it was caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis — the same kind of microbe that later caused Europe’s Black Death in the 14th century.
The bacteria get spread by fleas. After someone gets infected from a flea bite, the microbes travel to the nearest lymph node and start multiplying. “And so you get this mass swelling in that lymph node, which is known as a buboe,” says Wagner. “That’s where the term bubonic plague comes from.
The Justinian plague has been hard to study scientifically. But recently, archaeologists stumbled upon a clue outside Munich.
Top Photo: Graduate student Jennifer Klunk of McMaster University examines a tooth used to decode the genome of the ancient plague.
Bottom Photo: A tooth from the remains of a Justinian plague victim. Courtesy of McMaster University
Ancient mass grave unearthed at Italian gallery thought to contain dozens of plague victims
Work to expand the Uffizi Gallery’s exhibit space has unearthed an ancient cemetery with dozens of skeletons archaeologists say might have been victims of the plague or some other epidemic that swept through Florence during the 4th or 5th century.
Archaeologists and art officials showed reporters Wednesday the excavation at the renowned museum. In five months of digging, archaeologists uncovered 60 well-preserved skeletons in a cemetery apparently made in a hurry, perhaps a mass grave, with bodies laid side-by-side at roughly the same time.
Read more and see more really cool photos at the National Post
When medical anthropologist Mary Hayden visits her colleague Yofet, he tells her, “Mary, you don’t need to call before you arrive because I already know you’re coming.”
Yoset, you see, is a traditional healer in northern Uganda. “The spirit comes over him and tells him how to treat people,” Hayden tells Shots.
But recently, Yoset’s practice has expanded beyond the ethereal. He and about 40 other healers and herbalists are helping to track down the plague in Uganda for scientists here in the U.S.
"We trained traditional healers how to spot the symptoms of the plague," says Hayden, who now works at the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research. “We gave them cellphones with the hospital’s number programmed into it. And we gave them bicycles so they could help get people to clinics.”
Hayden described the project and its results so far to scientists at a tropical medicine meeting in Washington, D.C., over the weekend.
Back in 2009, Hayden was working at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. A team of scientists there were using computer models topredict where the plague might appear in northwest Uganda. The region records about 400 plague cases a year.
But a single infection can mushroom into hundreds more if the bacteria move to a person’s lungs and start spreading through the air.
There was one major obstacle preventing the team from tracking the disease: Many villages in rural Uganda don’t have medical doctors or nurses to diagnose or treat the plague.
"Most people are 15 to 20 kilometers from a health clinic," Hayden says. "When you have the plague, you’re really sick and you’re not walking 15 to 20 kilometers."
But many patients do go see their village’s herbalist or healer, like Yoset. Hayden and her team trained them to spot potential cases of the plague and other severe diseases and then refer the people for modern medical care.
Top: Yofet, a spiritual healer in northwestern Uganda, has referred cases of the plague and severe malaria to nearby clinics. (Courtesy of Mary Hayden)
Bottom: Medical anthropologist Mary Hayden, left, trains traditional healers in a village outside Arua, Uganda. (Courtesy of Mary Hayden)
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