Mass Grave Shows Evidence of Ancient Cholera Outbreak

Researchers hope ancient DNA evidence will give clues about evolution of pathogens and spread of deadly epidemics.

A three-year-old excavation at the graveyard of the Abbey of St. Peter in Lucca, Italy, is yielding something more than archaeologists initially expected, and they’re not just talking about bones and other grave features and artifacts. While excavating, they stumbled upon a mass grave of human remains that contain evidence of an ancient cholera outbreak. 

Led by Giuseppe Vercellotti and Clark Larson from Ohio State University and Hendrik Poinar from McMaster University, the researchers at the site have collected samples of ancient DNA from both humans and bacteria, hoping to find answers to questions about how past epidemics, such as the bubonic plague, developed, spread and devastated historic human populations in Europe. Moreover, they hope that making comparisons to modern bacterial genomes can shed light on how pathogens evolved under a variety of conditions, such as war and famine.  

The Abbey of St. Peter was situated along an early pilgrimage route, and was a congregational point for knights, clerics, monks and peasants. The researchers are comparing fossils and genes from a variety of social classes and time periods to build a picture of how people lived and died in Middle Age Europe, and beyond. One of their research questions centers around why the bacterial strain for bubonic plague is much less virulent today than it was centuries ago. Other answers have already been found, such as how malaria effected a historic battle at the site hundreds of years ago. 

A detailed news story about the discoveries and research is published in the journal Science.*


*Article #35: “The Thousand-Year Graveyard,” by Ann Gibbons at Science News in Washington, DC.

Cover Photo, Top Left: The city of Lucca in Giovanni Sercambi‘s Cronica, Archivio di Stato, Lucca, Biblioteca Manoscritti. Wikimedia Commons


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