(ORDO NEWS) — Four thousand years ago, three of the most important civilizations of the Eastern Mediterranean died out almost simultaneously.
Recent findings from archaeogenetic studies show that infectious disease epidemics have played a major role in this. Scientists have discovered the DNA of bacteria that cause plague and typhoid fever in ancient graves.
In a short time from 2200 to 2000 BC, the two largest empires of the Bronze Age fell – Egyptian and Akkadian.
And the Mycenaean kingdom, covering the islands and the coast of the Aegean Sea, fell into a deep crisis, manifested by a sharp decline in population, the destruction of cities, the disappearance of trade routes and a general decline in culture.
The Hittite, Egyptian and Greek written sources that have come down to us tell us that at this time the Eastern Mediterranean experienced drought, famine, earthquakes, civil unrest and raids by neighboring tribes. Archaeologists have been looking for confirmation of these facts for many years.
Recently, however, new methods have emerged to test other likely causes for the decline of Early Bronze Age civilization, such as the mass epidemic hypothesis.
Until now, only those diseases that leave changes in the bones have been identified from the remains. Modern DNA analysis technologies make it possible to identify a wider range of infectious pathogens that have affected populations in the past.
Scientists led by archaeogeneticist Gunnar Neumann from the Institute of Evolutionary Anthropology. Max Planck in Germany, exploring the ancient burials of the late III millennium BC in the cave of Agios Charalambos in Crete found that some of the dead suffered from plague and typhus.
In total, the authors analyzed 32 DNA samples from dental pulp from people living between 2290 and 1909 BC. In two cases, the plague bacillus Yersinia pestis was found, and in the other two, Salmonella enterica, which causes typhoid fever.
According to scientists, the decline of ancient civilizations is most likely caused by a combination of interrelated factors.
Long-term droughts associated with climate change, which began 4.2 thousand years ago, led to crop failure, famine and mass migration of the population. A lack of drinking water and a weakened immune system lead to the spread of infection.
The plague bacillus Yersinia pestis is a bacterium responsible for almost every major epidemic from ancient times to the middle of the 14th century.
A case is described when, after the victory over the Israelites, the Philistines captured the Ark of the Covenant, after which an epidemic broke out. However, it turns out that the infection struck people long before biblical events – at least since the late Neolithic.
Last year, German geneticists studying the remains of four people who lived in Latvia more than five thousand years ago found that one of them probably died from the plague. This is the oldest known case of infection.
Previously, scientists from Denmark and the UK analyzed the genomes extracted from the teeth of 101 Bronze Age humans found over a wide area from Poland to Siberia. The authors showed the presence of Yersinia pestis in seven deceased people living in the 3rd millennium BC.
The researchers compared DNA analysis of ancient pathogens with the age of the remains and found that a specific lineage of Yersinia pestis existed in the Bronze Age.
For three thousand years, it remained endemic among the population of the Eurasian peoples, transmitted only through direct contact between people. This extinct species includes all DNA samples between five and two and a half thousand years old, including a discovery in Crete.
The authors believe that it was most likely an airborne pneumonic plague. Later, when the plague bacillus adapted to the transmission of fleas and lice, a bumpy form appeared with which all the deadly epidemics of the Middle Ages are associated.
People became infected from insect bites, the bacterium got into the blood, and instead of inflamed lymph nodes, abdominal swelling appeared – tumors.
The results of genetic studies show that the early strain of Yersinia pestis lacks several key genes responsible for the rate of transmission. Based on this, scientists have put forward a version according to which the plague that ancient people suffered from was not as contagious as its later strains.
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