Plague victim in Altenerding, Germany
© Museum Erding

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Medieval victim reveals secrets of the Plague of Justinian

Nearly 50 years ago, archaeologists in the southern German town of Altenerding (pictured above) unearthed the bones of a young man who died sometime around 570 C.E. Now, DNA salvaged from one of the man’s teeth has confirmed the suspicion that he died of the plague—as did a young woman buried with him. The two were victims of the Plague of Justinian, which killed as many as 50 million people throughout Europe and the Mediterranean in more than a dozen waves between the 6th and the 8th centuries C.E. Researchers have now been able to piece together the DNA sequence of the Yersinia pestis bacterium that killed the man. They say it belongs to the same strain as another sample sequenced from bones from the same era excavated about 20 kilometers away. The new sequence provides higher coverage of the genome, the researchers report today in Molecular Biology and Evolution, allowing them to identify sequence changes in key genes that affect the bacterium’s virulence—its ability to make people ill. The new data may help scientists piece together how the scourge spread from Egypt as far north as present-day Germany. It may also help scientists better understand why the disease seemingly disappeared from Europe and the Middle East toward the end of the 8th century, only to reappear with a vengeance in the Black Death of the 1300s.