Studying the Medieval skeletons of people who went through the European plague (also called the Black Death), which killed 30% of Europeans, including nearly half of the people in London, between 1347 and 1351, may help us understand how disease can affect human evolution.
Anthropologist Sharon DeWitte says that these skeletons "can tell us something about the nature of human variation today and whether there is an artifact of diseases we have faced in the past. Knowing how strongly these diseases can actually shape human biology can give us tools to work with in the future to understand disease and how it might affect us."
Comparing the life span of people who lived before and after the blight, she expected to see a post-Black Death population that lived longer–and she did. DeWitte says, "I found that a significantly higher number of people were living to really old ages after the Black Death. Many people lived beyond the age of 50 and particularly above the age of 70. I honestly was surprised by how dramatic the difference was in their survival. I’ve analyzed risks of mortality within the pre-and post-Black Death populations, and the preliminary results suggest lower overall risks of mortality after the Black Death."
In other words, this horrible mass decimation created a kind of "fountain of youth" for those who survived it. It changed their genes and gave them longevity, since living to age 70 in those days was extraordinary.
DeWitte attributes the longevity of the remaining population to two things: The Black Death’s selectivity in targeting people who were frail and in poor health and a rise in living standards after the Black Death that resulted in better diet and improved housing.
She ways, "Many people who survived the Black Death did so because they were basically healthier and their descendants were probably healthier. Because so many people died from the Black Death, wages increased for the people who survived. People of all social classes were eating better food, which would have had strong effects on health."
Those of us who have lived through the AIDS crisis have to hope that we don’t need a plague to bring all these good things to the survivors. Let’s just hope it’s not the End of Days for unknowncountry.com soon (NOTE: Subscribers can still listen to this show), and there’s only ONE way to MAKE SURE we’re still here tomorrow: Subscribe today!
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