Details of first historically recorded plague pandemic revealed by ancient genomes

Details of first historically recorded plague pandemic revealed by ancient genomes

Analysis of 8 new plague genomes from the first plague pandemic reveals previously unknown levels of plague diversity, and provides the first genetic evidence of the Justinianic Plague in the British Isles

Justinianic Plague Yersinia pestis
Map and phylogenetic tree showing the newly published (yellow) and previously published (turquoise) genomes. Shaded areas and dots represent historically recorded outbreaks of the First Pandemic. Credit: Marcel Keller

An international team of researchers has analyzed human remains from 21 archaeological sites to learn more about the impact and evolution of the plague-causing bacterium Yersinia pestis during the first plague pandemic (541-750 AD). In a study published in PNAS, the researchers reconstructed 8 plague genomes from Britain, Germany, France and Spain and uncovered a previously unknown level of diversity in Y. pestis strains. Additionally, they found the first direct genetic evidence of the Justinianic Plague in the British Isles.

The Justinianic Plague began in 541 in the Eastern Roman Empire, ruled at the time by the Emperor Justinian I, and recurrent outbreaks ravaged Europe and the Mediterranean basin for approximately 200 years. Contemporaneous records describe the extent of the pandemic, estimated to have wiped out up to 25% of the population of the Roman world at the time. Recent genetic studies revealed that the bacterium Yersinia pestis was the cause of the disease, but how it had spread and how the strains that appeared over the course of the pandemic were related to each other was previously unknown.

In the current study, an international team of researchers led by the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History analyzed human remains from 21 sites with multiple burials in Austria, Britain, Germany, France and Spain. They were able to reconstruct 8 new Y. pestis genomes, allowing them to compare these strains to previously published ancient and modern genomes. Additionally, the team found the earliest genetic evidence of plague in Britain, from the Anglo-Saxon site of Edix Hill. By using a combination of archaeological dating and the position of this strain of Y. pestis in its evolutionary tree, the researchers concluded that the genome is likely related to an ambiguously described pestilence in the British Isles in 544 AD.

High diversity of Y. pestis strains during the First Pandemic

The researchers found that there was a previously unknown diversity of strains of Y. pestis circulating in Europe between the 6th and 8th centuries AD. The 8 new genomes came from Britain, France, Germany and Spain. "The retrieval of genomes that span a wide geographic and temporal scope gives us the opportunity to assess Y. pestis' microdiversity present in Europe during the First Pandemic," explains co-first author Marcel Keller, PhD student at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, now working at the University of Tartu. The newly discovered genomes revealed that there were multiple, closely related strains of Y. pestis circulating during the 200 years of the First Pandemic, some possibly at the same times and in the same regions.

Despite the greatly increased number of genomes now available, the researchers were not able to clarify the onset of the Justinianic Plague. "The lineage likely emerged in Central Asia several hundred years before the First Pandemic, but we interpret the current data as insufficient to resolve the origin of the Justinianic Plague as a human epidemic, before it was first reported in Egypt in 541 AD. However, the fact that all genomes belong to the same lineage is indicative of a persistence of plague in Europe or the Mediterranean basin over this time period, instead of multiple reintroductions."

Sampling of a tooth from a suspected plague burial. Credit: Evelyn Guevara

Possible evidence of convergent evolution in strains from two independent historical pandemics

Another interesting finding of the study was that plague genomes appearing towards the end of the First Pandemic showed a big deletion in their genetic code that included two virulence factors. Plague genomes from the late stages of the Second Pandemic some 800-1000 years later show a similar deletion covering the same region of the genomes. "This is a possible example of convergent evolution, meaning that these Y. pestis strains independently evolved similar characteristics. Such changes may reflect an adaptation to a distinct ecological niche in Western Eurasia where the plague was circulating during both pandemics," explains co-first author Maria Spyrou of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.

The current study offers new insights into the first historically documented plague pandemic, and provides additional clues alongside historical, archaeological, and palaeoepidemiological evidence, helping to answer outstanding questions. "This study shows the potential of palaeogenomic research for understanding historical and modern pandemics by comparing genomes across millennia," explains senior author Johannes Krause of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History. "With more extensive sampling of possible plague burials, we hope to contribute to the understanding of Y. pestis' microevolution and its impact on humans during the course of past and present pandemics."

Lunel-Viel (Languedoc-Southern France). Victim of the plague thrown into a demolition trench of a Gallo-Roman house; end of the 6th-early 7th century. Credit: 1990; CNRS - Claude Raynaud

Press release from the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History / Max-Planck-Instituts für Menschheitsgeschichte


Fears in Solitude Samuel Taylor Coleridge propaganda Napoleon

Coleridge’s Fears in Solitude – propaganda in Britain in 1798

Coleridge’s Fears in Solitude – propaganda in Britain in 1798

Fears in Solitude Samuel Taylor Coleridge propaganda Napoleon
Bonaparte and the Plumb Pudding

At the turn of the nineteenth century, Britain was shaking with fear.  The French were poised to invade – indeed they did manage to get ashore at one point – and the popular belief, fuelled by propaganda, was that they were savages who would wreak merciless violence on the civilian population.

Contemporary words and pictures that evoke this mood of despair are being analysed by a University of Huddersfield lecturer who also finds modern parallels with the scaremongering of two centuries ago.

“Look at how anger and emotion spread on social media.  It is mostly negative emotions that spiral out of control and as people feel compelled to respond, the panic and hostility spreads and intensifies,” says Dr Ildiko Csengei, a Senior Lecturer in English Literature.

But she is researching a time long before our present-day anxieties, when pamphlets, broadsheets, handbills and caricatures were among the media that shaped the national mood during the wars with Revolutionary and Napoleonic France that were waged between 1793 and 1815.

Major poets too produced works that explored their response to “the Great Terror”, as it was known, and Dr Csengei’s latest articleThe Literature of Fear in Britain, appearing in the journal English Literature, focusses on Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s 1798 poem Fears in Solitude.  This was written in 1798 “during the alarm of invasion” and followed an incident in 1797 when a French force landed at Fishguard, only to be captured.

Dr Csengei’s article includes an account of this episode, which, she writes, “is usually remembered today as a humorous shambles, with a handful of Welshmen and women triumphantly outsmarting the French”.

It was said that the French mistook local women dressed in traditional hats and red coats as British soldiers and so believed themselves to be outnumbered.  This is a myth, but women did play a part in defending Fishguard for a day, writes Dr Csengei, and they did gather on a hill – although not to frighten off the French but to watch them surrender.

Fishguard’s French invaders

The new article analyses a wide range of responses to the Fishguard incident and to persistent fears of French invasion.  Dr Csengei includes a lurid broadside titled Horrors upon Horrors that purported to report on the cruelties inflicted by French soldiers.  An 1803 Invasion Sketch predicts murderous atrocities in a London that is renamed Buonapart-opolis.

But there were also satirical and humorous responses, and Dr Csengei’s article includes reproductions of cartoons that mock the idea of French invasion, including a giant hot air balloon, complete with guillotine, carrying troops across the Channel.

“There were also images produced during the 1803-05 invasion scare that showed Napoleon as tiny and John Bull as big and strong, so it wasn’t just about generating fear but generating a sense of national bravery,” said Dr Csengei.

Coleridge’s response in Fears in Solitude is much more ambiguous.  Since it appeared, there has been debate over whether the poet was subscribing to the alarmism of the period or challenging it.

Dr Csengei argues that the poem “emerges as an artistic discourse designed reflectively to manage his own and the nation’s fears instead of perpetuating the feeling itself”.

It is an intellectual response of the kind that is much needed today, she said.

Her Coleridge article, and an earlier one about Lord Byron’s response to Waterloo, forms part of research that will lead to a book dealing with the emotional and mental health impact of the Napoleonic Wars, a period when the Romantic movement was emerging in English literature.

Today there are recognised conditions such as combat-related Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and during World War One there was the concept of shell shock.  Dr Csengei is exploring how such experiences were recorded before the development of psychiatry.  The poetry of Romantics such as Coleridge, Wordsworth and Byron is a key source, together with many first-hand accounts written by those who participated in the wars during this period.

 

Dr Ildiko Csengei’s article in ‘English Literature’ journal analyses Britain’s fear of invasion by the French at the turn of the 19th century. Her article, ‘The Literature of Fear in Britain’ focusses on Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem, written following an incident in 1797 when a French force landed at Fishguard.

Full bibliographic information

Title: The Literature of Fear in Britain
Author: Ildiko Csengei
Journal: English Literature 5 | 2018
DOI 10.30687/EL/2420-823X/2018/05/011
Fears in Solitude Samuel Taylor Coleridge propaganda Napoleon
Dr Ildiko Csengei

Press release from the University of Huddersfield


'Cthulhu' fossil reconstruction reveals monstrous relative of modern sea cucumbers

'Cthulhu' fossil reconstruction reveals monstrous relative of modern sea cucumbers

New species of extinct sea cucumber named Sollasina cthulhu, for its resemblance to H.P. Lovecraft's famous monster

Sollasina cthulhu sea cucumber
This is a 3D reconstruction of Sollasina cthulhu. Tube feet are shown in different colors. Credit: Imran Rahman, Oxford University Museum of Natural History

An exceptionally-preserved fossil from Herefordshire in the UK has given new insights into the early evolution of sea cucumbers, the group that includes the sea pig and its relatives, according to a new article published today in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

Palaeontologists from the UK and USA created an accurate 3D computer reconstruction of the 430 million-year-old fossil which allowed them to identify it as a species new to science. They named the animal Sollasina cthulhu due to its resemblance to monsters from the fictional Cthulhu universe created by author H.P. Lovecraft.

Although the fossil is just 3 cm wide, its many long tentacles would have made it appear quite monstrous to other small sea creatures alive at the time. It is thought that these tentacles, or 'tube feet', were used to capture food and crawl over the seafloor.

Like other fossils from Herefordshire, Sollasina cthulhu was studied using a method that involved grinding it away, layer-by-layer, with a photograph taken at each stage. This produced hundreds of slice images, which were digitally reconstructed as a 'virtual fossil'.

This 3D reconstruction allowed palaeontologists to visualise an internal ring, which they interpreted as part of the water vascular system - the system of fluid-filled canals used for feeding and movement in living sea cucumbers and their relatives.

Lead author, Dr Imran Rahman, Deputy Head of Research at Oxford University Museum of Natural History said:

"Sollasina belongs to an extinct group called the ophiocistioids, and this new material provides the first information on the group's internal structures. This includes an inner ring-like form that has never been described in the group before. We interpret this as the first evidence of the soft parts of the water vascular system in ophiocistioids."

The new fossil was incorporated into a computerized analysis of the evolutionary relationships of fossil sea cucumbers and sea urchins. The results showed that Sollasina and its relatives are most closely related to sea cucumbers, rather than sea urchins, shedding new light on the evolutionary history of the group.

Co-author Dr Jeffrey Thompson, Royal Society Newton International Fellow at University College London, said:

"We carried out a number of analyses to work out whether Sollasina was more closely related to sea cucumbers or sea urchins. To our surprise, the results suggest it was an ancient sea cucumber. This helps us understand the changes that occurred during the early evolution of the group, which ultimately gave rise to the slug-like forms we see today."

Sollasina cthulhu sea cucumber
This is a life reconstruction of Sollasina cthulhu. Credit: Elissa Martin, Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History

The fossil was described by an international team of researchers from Oxford University Museum of Natural History, University of Southern California, Yale University, University of Leicester, and Imperial College London. It represents one of many important finds recovered from the Herefordshire fossil site in the UK, which is famous for preserving both the soft as well as the hard parts of fossils.

The fossil slices and 3D reconstruction are housed at Oxford University Museum of Natural History.

###

Notes

* 'A new ophiocistioid with soft-tissue preservation from the Silurian Herefordshire Lagerstätte, and the evolution of the holothurian body plan' by Imran Rahman, Jeffrey Thompson, Derek Briggs, David Siveter, Derek Siveter and Mark Sutton in Proceedings of the Royal Society B: http://rspb.royalsocietypublishing.org/lookup/doi/10.1098/rspb.2018.2792

About Oxford University Museum of Natural History

Founded in 1860 as the centre for scientific study at the University of Oxford, the Museum of Natural History now holds the University's internationally significant collections of entomological, geological and zoological specimens. Housed in a stunning Pre-Raphaelite-inspired example of neo-Gothic architecture, the Museum's growing collections underpin a broad programme of natural environment research, teaching and public engagement.

In 2015, the Museum was a Finalist in the Art Fund Prize for Museum of the Year. In 2016, it won the top accolade, Best of the Best, in the Museums + Heritage Awards.

http://www.oumnh.ox.ac.uk http://www.morethanadodo.com

 

Press release from the University of Oxford