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Austria’s oldest Bronze Age plague victims identified

A research project led by the Austrian Academy of Sciences has identified the plague pathogen in two young adults who lived 4,000-years-ago during the Bronze Age.

The plague is an infectious disease caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis that occurs in three forms. Pneumonic plague infects the lungs causing shortness of breath, coughing and chest pain; bubonic plague affects the lymph nodes making them swell; and septicemic plague infects the blood and can cause tissues to turn black and die.

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The burials were found in Drasenhofen in the Austrian state of Lower Austria, where archaeologists have excavated a row-grave cemetery comprising of 22 burials.

Both plague victims are males who died at the age of 23 to 30 and 22 to 27 during the Early Bronze Age around 2000 BC. Until now, finds from the Middle Ages were considered the oldest plague deaths in Austria.

Image Credit : ÖAW/Archaeprotect

“Their graves are in peripheral locations, so the community was probably aware that they had died of a contagious disease,” says archaeologist Katharina Rebay-Salisbury of the Austrian Archaeological Institute of the Austrian Academy of Sciences (OeAW).

Working in cooperation with the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, samples from the victims were taken from the inside of the tooth crowns, as blood vessels run here and allow the detection of pathogens that were in the blood at the time of the individual’s death.

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The results revealed evidence of Yersinia pestis, however, both individuals two had different strains of plague bacteria, suggesting that they were infected at two different events.

“Unlike later in the Middle Ages, the plague may not have been transmitted by fleas because the early plague bacteria lacked important genetic properties for this. It could therefore have been other routes of infection such as droplet infections or the consumption of infected meat,” said Rebay-Salisbury.

Austrian Academy of Sciences

Header Image Credit : ÖAW/Archaeprotect

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Mark Milligan
Mark Milligan
Mark Milligan is multi-award-winning journalist and the Managing Editor at HeritageDaily. His background is in archaeology and computer science, having written over 7,500 articles across several online publications. Mark is a member of the Association of British Science Writers (ABSW), the World Federation of Science Journalists, and in 2023 was the recipient of the British Citizen Award for Education, the BCA Medal of Honour, and the UK Prime Minister's Points of Light Award.
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