Friday, July 16, 2004

Fossilized plague-ridden Egyptian insects challenge plague origin theories

Fossilized plague in Egypt"In almost all cases, plague epidemics strike areas with poor and cramped living conditions, much like the "Workmen's Village" section of Amarna where Eva Panagiotakopulu, a paleoentomologist at Sheffield University in England, carried out her research on fossilized insect remains. Amarna, the site of excavations by Barry Kemp (a renowned Egyptologist from the University of Cambridge), is a good place to study ancient life in Egypt, Panagiotakopulu says, because the site is well-preserved in the dry desert sands. Archaeologists have flocked to the site for more than 100 years to learn why the city was capital for only 20 years (around 1350 to 1330 B.C.) and then abandoned. However, Panagiotakopulu is the first to look at fossilized insect remains in the ancient city.

The Workmen's Village was the section near the ancient capital reserved for the artisans who toiled on the nearby stone tombs for the pharaohs Akhenaten and Tutankhamun. There, Panagiotakopulu found a very high frequency of fossilized human fleas, bedbugs and other insects and parasites that "present a picture of squalid living conditions" in and around the workers' houses, she says.

Because pandemic plague throughout history often first showed itself by a large number of black rat deaths, scientists have long thought that plague originated in India and Central Asia, where black rats were endemic. They thought the plague then spread throughout the Mediterranean and Europe by fleas on black rats that entered the Mediterranean region via shipboard trading. But the identification of fossilized plague bacteria in the fossilized fleas in Egypt led Panagiotakopulu to hypothesize that plague instead originated in Africa, in fleas that fed on the endemic Nile rat. The plague only grew to epidemic proportions when the Asian black rats - new hosts - were introduced to Egypt, Panagiotakopulu wrote in the February Journal of Biogeography.
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