Nav: Home

Justinianic plague not a landmark pandemic?

December 02, 2019

Researchers now have a clearer picture of the impact of the first plague pandemic, the Justinianic Plague, which lasted from about 541-750 CE.

Led by researchers at the University of Maryland's National-Socio Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC), the international team of scholars found that the plague's effects may have been exaggerated. They examined diverse datasets, but found no concrete effects they could conclusively attribute to the plague. Their paper appears in the December 2 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

"Our article is the first time such a large body of novel interdisciplinary evidence has been investigated in this context," said lead author Lee Mordechai, a postdoctoral fellow at SESYNC, and co-lead of Princeton's Climate Change and History Research Initiative (CCHRI). He is now a senior lecturer at Hebrew University of Jerusalem. "If this plague was a key moment in human history that killed between a third and half the population of the Mediterranean world in just a few years, as is often claimed, we should have evidence for it but our survey of datasets found none."

The research team, which collaborated through the CCHRI, examined contemporary written sources, inscriptions, coinage, papyrus documents, pollen samples, plague genomes, and mortuary archaeology.

The researchers focused on the period known as Late Antiquity (300-800 CE) that included major events such as the fall of the Western Roman Empire and the rise of Islam--events that have been sometimes attributed to plague, including in history textbooks.

"Our paper rewrites the history of Late Antiquity from an environmental perspective that doesn't assume plague was responsible for changing the world," said Merle Eisenberg, also a SESYNC postdoctoral fellow, member of the CCHRI and a co-author on the paper. "The paper is notable because historians led this PNAS publication, and we asked historical questions that focused on the potential social and economic effects of plague."

The team found that previous scholars have focused on the most evocative written accounts, applying them to other places in the Mediterranean world while ignoring hundreds of contemporary texts that do not mention plague.

"While plague studies is an interdisciplinary, demanding field of study, most plague scholars rely solely on the types of evidence they are trained to use. We are the first team to look for the impacts of the first plague pandemic in very diverse datasets. We found no reason to argue that the plague killed tens of millions of people as many have claimed," said co-author Timothy Newfield, another co-lead of the CCHRI who is now an assistant professor of history and biology at Georgetown University. "Plague is often construed as shifting the course of history. It's an easy explanation, too easy. It's essential to establish a causal connection."

Many of these datasets, such as agricultural production, show that trends that began before the plague outbreak continued without change.

"We used pollen evidence to estimate agricultural production, which shows no decrease associable with plague mortality. If there were fewer people working the land, this should have shown up in pollen, but it has failed to so far," said co-author Adam Izdebski, a member of CCHRI who is now a research group leader at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History and an assistant professor of history at Jagiellonian University.

Even some of the most well-known effects of large epidemics, such as changes in burial traditions, follow existing trends that began centuries earlier.

"We investigated a large dataset of human burials from before and after the plague outbreak, and the plague did not result in a significant change whether people buried the dead alone or with many others," said co-author Janet Kay, a lecturer in the Council of the Humanities and history and the CSLA-Cotsen Postdoctoral Fellow in Late Antiquity in the Society of Fellows at Princeton University. She contrasted that with the Black Death, a plague that took place about 800 years after the Justinianic Plague. "The Black Death killed vast numbers of people and did change how people disposed of corpses," she said.

The researchers also used available plague genomes to trace the origin and evolution of the plague strains responsible for outbreak, which certainly killed people across Eurasia--how many people is the question.

Co-author Hendrik Poinar, a professor of evolutionary biology and director of the Ancient DNA Centre at McMaster University, added: "Although tracing the origins and development of the plague bacterium is crucial, the presence of the pathogen does not in itself mean catastrophe."
-end-
"The Justinianic Plague: An inconsequential pandemic?" by Lee Mordechai, Merle Eisenberg, Timothy P. Newfield, Adam Izdebski, Janet Kay and Hendrik Poinari appears in the Dec. 2 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1903797116).

The study is based upon work funded by the National Science Foundation DBI-1639145, Princeton University's Climate Change and History Research Initiative, Georgetown University's Environmental Initiative, the Max Planck Society, Poland's Ministry of Science and Higher Education, and the Mellon/ACLS Dissertation Completion Fellowship.

Contact: Lee Mordechai, +972-552-700-422, lmordechai@sesync.org

Written by: Merle Eisenberg, 410-919-4810, meisenberg@sesync.org

National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center

Related Pollen Articles:

Clemson scientist explores the colorful intricacies of pollen
A collaborative study by Clemson scientist Matthew Koski suggests that pollen color can evolve independently from flower traits, and that plant species maintain both light and dark pollen because each offers distinct survival advantages.
Pollen-based 'paper' holds promise for new generation of natural components
NTU Singapore scientists have created a paper-like material derived from pollen that bends and curls in response to changing levels of environmental humidity.
NTU scientists transform ultra-tough pollen into flexible material
Scientists at NTU Singapore have found a way to turn pollen, one of the hardest materials in the plant kingdom, into a soft and flexible material, with the potential to serve as 'building blocks' for the design of new categories of eco-friendly materials.
Bumblebees aversion to pumpkin pollen may help plants thrive
Cornell University researchers have found that squash and pumpkin pollen have physical, nutritional and chemical defense qualities that are harmful to bumblebees.
Fossilized insect from 100 million years ago is oldest record of primitive bee with pollen
Beetle parasites clinging to a primitive bee 100 million years ago may have caused the flight error that, while deadly for the insect, is a boon for science today.
Preserved pollen tells the history of floodplains
Fossil pollen can help reconstruct the past and predict the future.
Researchers determine pollen abundance and diversity in pollinator-dependent crops
A new study provides valuable insights into pollen abundance and diversity available to honeybee colonies employed in five major pollinator-dependent crops in Oregon and California.
Cleaning pollutants from water with pollen and spores -- without the 'achoo!' (video)
In addition to their role in plant fertilization and reproduction, pollens and spores have another, hidden talent: With a simple treatment, these cheap, abundant and renewable grains can be converted into tiny sponge-like particles that can be used to grab onto pollutants and remove them from water, scientists report.
Japanese trees synchronize allergic pollen release over immense distances
Tokyo University of Agriculture and Technology (TUAT) researchers used tree pollen data for 120 sites across Japan to observe pollen synchronicity at regional and national levels.
The journey of the pollen
When insects carry the pollen from one flower to another to pollinate them, the pollen must attach to and detach from different surfaces.
More Pollen News and Pollen Current Events

Trending Science News

Current Coronavirus (COVID-19) News

Top Science Podcasts

We have hand picked the top science podcasts of 2020.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

Climate Mindset
In the past few months, human beings have come together to fight a global threat. This hour, TED speakers explore how our response can be the catalyst to fight another global crisis: climate change. Guests include political strategist Tom Rivett-Carnac, diplomat Christiana Figueres, climate justice activist Xiye Bastida, and writer, illustrator, and artist Oliver Jeffers.
Now Playing: Science for the People

#562 Superbug to Bedside
By now we're all good and scared about antibiotic resistance, one of the many things coming to get us all. But there's good news, sort of. News antibiotics are coming out! How do they get tested? What does that kind of a trial look like and how does it happen? Host Bethany Brookeshire talks with Matt McCarthy, author of "Superbugs: The Race to Stop an Epidemic", about the ins and outs of testing a new antibiotic in the hospital.
Now Playing: Radiolab

Speedy Beet
There are few musical moments more well-worn than the first four notes of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. But in this short, we find out that Beethoven might have made a last-ditch effort to keep his music from ever feeling familiar, to keep pushing his listeners to a kind of psychological limit. Big thanks to our Brooklyn Philharmonic musicians: Deborah Buck and Suzy Perelman on violin, Arash Amini on cello, and Ah Ling Neu on viola. And check out The First Four Notes, Matthew Guerrieri's book on Beethoven's Fifth. Support Radiolab today at Radiolab.org/donate.