Infectious disease modeling study casts doubt on impact of Justinianic plague

Infectious disease modeling study casts doubt on impact of Justinianic plague

Work shows value of new examinations of old narratives of this pandemic

Justinianic Plague mathematical modeling
Costumes of All Nations (1882), by Albert Kretschmer, painters and costumer to the Royal Court Theatre, Berin, and Dr. Carl Rohrbach. Picture in the public domain

ANNAPOLIS, Md. - Many have claimed the Justinianic Plague (c. 541-750 CE) killed half of the population of Roman Empire. Now, historical research and mathematical modeling challenge the death rate and severity of this first plague pandemic.

Researchers Lauren White, PhD and Lee Mordechai, PhD, of the University of Maryland's National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC), examined the impacts of the Justinianic Plague with mathematical modeling. Using modern plague research as their basis, the two developed novel mathematical models to re-examine primary sources from the time of the Justinianic Plague outbreak. From the modeling, they found that it was unlikely that any transmission route of the plague would have had both the mortality rate and duration described in the primary sources. Their findings appear in a paper titled "Modeling the Justinianic Plague: Comparing hypothesized transmission routes" in PLOS ONE.

"This is the first time, to our knowledge, that a robust mathematical modeling approach has been used to investigate the Justinianic Plague," said lead author Lauren White, PhD, a quantitative disease ecologist and postdoctoral fellow at SESYNC. "Given that there is very little quantitative information in the primary sources for the Justinianic Plague, this was an exciting opportunity to think creatively about how we could combine present-day knowledge of plague's etiology with descriptions from the historical texts."

White and Mordechai focused their efforts on the city of Constantinople, capital of the Roman Empire, which had a comparatively well-described outbreak in 542 CE. Some primary sources claim plague killed up to 300,000 people in the city, which had a population of some 500,000 people at the time. Other sources suggest the plague killed half the empire's population. Until recently, many scholars accepted this image of mass death. By comparing bubonic, pneumonic, and combined transmission routes, the authors showed that no single transmission route precisely mimicked the outbreak dynamics described in these primary sources.

Existing literature often assumes that the Justinianic Plague affected all areas of the Mediterranean in the same way. The new findings from this paper suggest that given the variation in ecological and social patterns across the region (e.g., climate, population density), it is unlikely that a plague outbreak would have impacted all corners of the diverse empire equally.

Xenopsylla cheopis, photo by Katja ZSM, CC BY-SA 3.0

"Our results strongly suggest that the effects of the Justinianic Plague varied considerably between different urban areas in late antiquity," said co-author Lee Mordechai, an environmental historian and a postdoctoral fellow at SESYNC when he wrote the paper. He is now a senior lecturer at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and co-lead of Princeton's Climate Change and History Research Initiative (CCHRI). He said, "This paper is part of a series of publications in recent years that casts doubt on the traditional interpretation of plague using new methodologies. It's an exciting time to do this kind of interdisciplinary research!"

Using an approach called global sensitivity analysis, White and Mordechai were able to explore the importance of any given model parameter in dictating simulated disease outcomes. They found that several understudied parameters are also very important in determining model results. White explained, "One example was the transmission rate from fleas to humans. Although the analysis described this as an important parameter, there hasn't been enough research to validate a plausible range for that parameter."

These high importance variables with minimal information also point to future directions for empirical data collection. "Working with mathematical models of disease was an insightful process for me as a historian," reflected Mordechai. "It allowed us to examine traditional historical arguments with a powerful new lens."

Together, with other recent work from Mordechai, this study is another call to examine the primary sources and narratives surrounding the Justinianic Plague more critically.

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White, L.A. & Mordechai, L. (2020). Modeling the Justinianic Plague: Comparing hypothesized transmission routes. PLOS ONE. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0231256

About SESYNC: The University of Maryland's National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC) in Annapolis brings together the science of the natural world with the science of human behavior and decision making to find solutions to complex environmental problems. SESYNC is funded by an award to the University of Maryland from the National Science Foundation. For more information on SESYNC and its activities, please visit http://www.sesync.org.

 

Press release from the SESYNC, University of Mariland.


'Ein Qashish Neanderthal

Neanderthals made repeated use of the ancient settlement of 'Ein Qashish, Israel

Neanderthals made repeated use of the ancient settlement of 'Ein Qashish, Israel

This site provides a rare opportunity to study long-term use of an open air settlement

'Ein Qashish Neanderthal
The archaeological site of 'Ein Qashish in northern Israel was a place of repeated Neanderthal occupation and use during the Middle Paleolithic, according to a study released June 26, 2019 in the open-access journal PLOS ONE by Ravid Ekshtain of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and colleagues. Credit: Ekshtain, 2019, CC-BY

The archaeological site of 'Ein Qashish in northern Israel was a place of repeated Neanderthal occupation and use during the Middle Paleolithic, according to a study released June 26, 2019 in the open-access journal PLOS ONE by Ravid Ekshtain of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and colleagues.

In the Levant region of the Middle East, the main source of information on Middle Paleolithic human occupation comes from cave sites. Compared to open air settlements, sheltered sites like caves were easily recognized and often visited, and therefore are more likely to record long periods of occupation. The open-air site of 'Ein Qashish in northern Israel, however, is unusual in having been inhabited over an extended prehistoric time period. This site provides a unique opportunity to explore an open-air locality across a large landscape and over a long period ranging between 71,000 and 54,000 years ago.

In a joint collaboration with the Israel Antiquities Authority Ekshtain and colleagues identified human skeletal remains in 'Ein Qashish as Neanderthal and observed more than 12,000 artifacts from four different depositional units in the same location on the landscape. These units represent different instances of occupation during changing environmental conditions.

From modification of artifacts and animal bones at the site, the authors infer that the occupants were knapping tools, provisioning resources, and consuming animals on-site.

Whereas many open-air settlements are thought to be short-lived and chosen for specialized tasks, 'Ein Qashish appears to be the site of repeated occupations each of which hosted a range of general activities, indicating a stable and consistent settlement system. The authors suggest that within a complex settlement system, open-air sites may have been more important for prehistoric humans than previously thought.

Ekshtain adds: "Ein Qashish is a 70-60 thousand years open-air site, with a series of stratified human occupations in a dynamic flood plain environment. The site stands out in the extensive excavated area and some unique finds for an open-air context, from which we deduce the diversity of human activities on the landscape. In contrast to other known open-air sites, the locality was not used for task-specific activities but rather served time and again as a habitation location. The stratigraphy, dates and finds from the site allow a reconstruction of a robust settlement system of the late Neanderthals in northern Israel slightly before their disappearance from the regional record, raising questions about the reasons for their disappearance and about their interactions with contemporaneous modern humans."

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What kind of beer did the Pharaohs drink?

Cocktails with Cleopatra?

Israeli scientists resurrect yeast from ancient beer jugs to recreate 5,000-year-old brew

beer antiquity
Beer cruse from Tel Tzafit/Gath archaeological digs, from which Philistine beer was produced. Credit: Yaniv Berman, Israel Antiquities Authority.

What kind of beer did the Pharaohs drink? In ancient times, beer was an important ingredient in people's daily diet. Great powers were attributed to beer in the ancient world, particularly for religious worship and healing properties. The pottery used to produce beer in antiquity served as the basis for this new research. The research was led by Dr. Ronen Hazan and Dr. Michael Klutstein, microbiologists from the School of Dental Medicine at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem (HUJI). They examined the colonies of yeast that formed and settled in the pottery's nano-pores. Ultimately, they were able to resurrect this yeast to create a high-quality beer...that's approximately 5,000 years old.

Many cooks were invited into this'beer kitchen to isolate the yeast specimens from the ancient debris and to create a beer with it. First the scientists reached out to vintners at Kadma Winery. This winery still produces wine in clay vessels, proving that yeast may be safely removed from pottery, even if it had lain dormant in the sun for years.

The yeast was then photographed by Dr. Tziona Ben-Gedalya at Ariel University's Eastern R&D Center. Following her initial examination, the team reached out to archaeologists Dr. Yitzhak Paz from the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAI), Professor Aren Maeir at Bar Ilan University and Professors Yuval Gadot and Oded Lipschits from Tel Aviv University. These archaeologists gave them shards of pottery that had been used as beer and mead (honey wine) jugs back in ancient times--and miraculously, still had yeast specimens stuck inside. These jars date back to the reign of Egyptian Pharaoh Narmer (roughly 3000 BCE), to Aramean King Hazael (800 BCE) and to Prophet Nehemiah (400 BCE) who, according to the bible, governed Judea under Persian rule.

The researchers, with the help of HUJI student Tzemach Aouizerat, cleaned and sequenced the full genome of each yeast specimen and turned them over to Dr. Amir Szitenberg at the Dead Sea-Arava Science Center for analysis. Szitenberg found that these 5,000-year yeast cultures are similar to those used in traditional African brews, such as the Ethiopian honey wine tej, and to modern beer yeast.

Now it was time to recreate the ancient brew. Local Israeli beer expert Itai Gutman helped the scientists make the beer and the brew was sampled by Ariel University's Dr. Elyashiv Drori, as well as by certified tasters from the International Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP), under the direction of brewer and Biratenu owner Shmuel Nakai. The testers gave the beer a thumbs up, deeming it high-quality and safe for consumption.

Dr. Ronen Hazan tests a sample at Hadassah Medical Center-Hebrew University of Jerusalem School. Credit: Yaniv Berman, Israel Antiquities Authority.

Dr. Ronen Hazan, Hebrew University-Hadassah School of Dental Medicine: "The greatest wonder here is that the yeast colonies survived within the vessel for thousands of years--just waiting to be excavated and grown. This ancient yeast allowed us to create beer that lets us know what ancient Philistine and Egyptian beer tasted like. By the way, the beer isn't bad. Aside from the gimmick of drinking beer from the time of King Pharaoh, this research is extremely important to the field of experimental archaeology--a field that seeks to reconstruct the past. Our research offers new tools to examine ancient methods, and enables us to taste the flavors of the past."

Dr. Yitzchak Paz, Israel Antiquities Authority: "We are talking about a real breakthrough here. This is the first time we succeeded in producing ancient alcohol from ancient yeast. In other words, from the original substances from which alcohol was produced. This has never been done before."

Prof. Yuval Gadot, Tel Aviv University's Department of Archaeology and Ancient Near Eastern Cultures: "We dug at Ramat Rachel, the largest Persian site in the Judaean kingdom, and found a large concentration of jugs with the letters J, H, D - Yahud - written on them. In a royal site like Ramat Rachel it makes sense that alcohol would be consumed at the home of the Persian governor."

Prof. Aren Maeir, Bar-Ilan University's Department of Land of Israel Studies and Archaeology: "These findings paint a portrait that supports the biblical image of drunken Philistines."

L'chaim! The Israeli research team samples their ancient brew. Credit: Yaniv Berman, Israel Antiquities Authority.

Press release from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem