The Black Death chose its victims selectively

The Black Death, a bacterial epidemic that wiped out more than 1 in 3 Europeans from 1347 to 1351, was not an equal-opportunity destroyer. A new report finds that the disease disproportionately took the lives of physically frail people, rather than indiscriminately killing off individuals regardless of their health.

GRIN REAPER. New evidence suggests that Black Death victims, such as the woman represented by this skull, often had physical frailties before the epidemic. J. Bekvalac, T. Kausmally/Museum of London

Sharon DeWitte of the University at Albany, N.Y., and James W. Wood of Pennsylvania State University in University Park examined 490 skeletons from London’s East Smithfield cemetery, established in 1348 or 1349 solely to bury Black Death victims. The researchers looked for any of four types of bone damage or deformation that have been linked to infections or poor nutrition early in life.

For comparison, DeWitte and Wood also studied 291 pre-Black Death skeletons from cemeteries of two medieval Danish towns.

The scientists estimated each individual’s age at death and used a computer model to calculate the extent to which frailty contributed to death in the two populations.

Physical infirmities greatly raised the risk of dying for Danes unexposed to the Black Death, the scientists report in the Feb. 5 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. For instance, Danes with certain lower-leg lesions exhibited more than five times the risk of dying as their peers without such damage did.

Frailty also showed a strong, but less pronounced, link to death among Britons exposed to the epidemic. Individuals who incurred lower-leg damage before exposure to the Black Death were 50 percent more likely to die during the epidemic than were their non-damaged peers.

The new findings challenge assumptions that Black Death cemeteries contain a representative cross-section of the population from that time.

Bruce Bower

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.

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