Posts Tagged ‘bubonic plague’


In a mass grave dating to the 1500s on the Venetian island of Lazzaretto Nuovo, this skull of a woman was found with a brick shoved in its mouth. Researchers think gravediggers came upon the skeleton and feared she was a vampire.

by Heather Whipps

The remains of a medieval “vampire” have been discovered among the corpses of 16th century plague victims in Venice, according to an Italian archaeologist who led the dig.

The body of the woman was found in a mass grave on the Venetian island of Lazzaretto Nuovo. Suspecting that she might be a vampire, a common folk belief at the time, gravediggers shoved a rock into her skull to prevent her from chewing through her shroud and infecting others with the plague, said anthropologist Matteo Borrini of the University of Florence.

In the absence of medical science, vampires were just one of many possible contemporary explanations for the spread of the Venetian plague in 1576, which ran rampant through the city and ultimately killed up to 50,000 people, some officials estimate.

Italy’s famous canal city wasn’t really overrun with medieval Draculas, however.

With hundreds of Venetians dying every day, gravediggers likely just misinterpreted the corpses they saw at varying levels of decomposition while reopening fresh mass graves, said Borrini.

The “stages which reduce the corpse to a skeleton were poorly known because they happen in the grave,” Borrini told LiveScience. “Graves were usually reopened after years, when the body had completely turned into a skeleton.”

Death exposed

Vampire superstition was already part of European culture by the time the bubonic plague reappeared on the continent in sporadic outbreaks throughout the late 1500s. The classic folkloric image of the undead, bloodsucking vampire likely originated in Eastern Europe and spread westwards, historians say, blending and morphing with local beliefs as it went.

Ignorance about the natural stages of decomposition probably fed the original vampire myths, Borrini said, noting that historical documentation of vampires harped on the oddly life-like appearance of recently buried bodies.

“There are some recurring aspects in vampire exhumation reports (usually written in the 17th and 18th century by church-goers and well-educated men, and sometimes even by scientists): uncorrupted corpse, pliable limbs, smooth and tensed skin, renewed beard and nails,” Borrini said. At the time “death was linked to a cold and stiff corpse, or to a blanched skeleton (dry bones),” he said, so evidence of anything to the contrary was considered worrisome when the rare body was exhumed for examination.

In the middle of the plague in Venice, however, victims were being dumped into mass graves such as the one on Lazzaretto Nuovo very regularly, exposing bodies at every gruesome stage of decay.

Frightened gravediggers

A phenomenon that occurs early on in the process of decomposition – abdominal bloating – is what likely concerned the Venetian gravediggers, Borrini said. When humans die, the body releases a myriad of bacterial gases that cause a corpse to bloat with fluid, usually just a few days after death in the absence of any kind of preservation or protection from coffins.

“During this phase, the decay of the gastrointestinal tract contents and lining create a dark fluid called ‘purge fluid’; it can flow freely from the nose and mouth…and it could easily be confused with the blood sucked by the vampire,” said Borrini.

If the “vampire” woman was emitting blood from her mouth, the fluid likely moistened her burial shroud causing it to sink into her jaw cavity and be dissolved by the fluids, Borrini said, making it appear as though she was trying to bite through her shroud. When discovered in that state, a stone was jammed into her mouth as a kind of exorcism to prevent her from potentially spreading the disease further, the researchers think.

Medieval skeletons have been found in a similar state in other parts of Europe, Borrini said.

Bad times = superstition

It is difficult to decipher whether the brick-in-mouth tactic discovered in Venice was truly based on a deep fear of vampires or was merely extra precaution in troubled times, Borrini acknowledged.

“From a forensic point of view, we can accept the reports about the ‘vampire corpses’ as real descriptions, but we can also realize why those legends spread especially during plagues,” Borrini said. The mere fact that tombs and mass graves were reopened so frequently during pandemics to bury new victims of a disease, exposing partially decomposed bodies, only increased “dread and superstition among people who were already suffering pestilence and massive death,” he said.

Borrini presented his findings to a recent meeting of the American Association of Forensic Sciences, along with forensic orthodontist Emilio Nuzzolese.

http://www.livescience.com/3374-medieval-vampire-skull.html

Have you ever been on the subway and seen something that you did not quite recognize, something mysteriously unidentifiable?

Well, there is a good chance scientists do not know what it is either.

Researchers at Weill Cornell Medical College released a study on Thursday that mapped DNA found in New York’s subway system — a crowded, largely subterranean behemoth that carries 5.5 million riders on an average weekday, and is filled with hundreds of species of bacteria (mostly harmless), the occasional spot of bubonic plague, and a universe of enigmas. Almost half of the DNA found on the system’s surfaces did not match any known organism and just 0.2 percent matched the human genome.

“People don’t look at a subway pole and think, ‘It’s teeming with life,’ ” said Dr. Christopher E. Mason, a geneticist at Weill Cornell Medical College and the lead author of the study. “After this study, they may. But I want them to think of it the same way you’d look at a rain forest, and be almost in awe and wonder, effectively, that there are all these species present — and that you’ve been healthy all along.”

Dr. Mason said the inspiration for the study struck about four years ago when he was dropping off his daughter at day care. He watched her explore her new surroundings by happily popping objects into her mouth. As is the custom among tiny children, friendships were made on the floor, by passing back and forth toys that made their way from one mouth to the next.

“I couldn’t help thinking, ‘How much is being transferred, and on which kinds of things?’ ” Dr. Mason said. So he considered a place where adults can get a little too close to each other, the subway.

Thus was the project, called PathoMap, born. Over the past 17 months, a team mainly composed of medical students, graduate students and volunteers fanned out across the city, using nylon swabs to collect DNA, in triplicate, from surfaces that included wooden benches, stairway handrails, seats, doors, poles and turnstiles.

In addition to the wealth of mystery DNA — which was not unexpected given that only a few thousand of the world’s genomes have been fully mapped — the study’s other findings reflected New York’s famed diversity, both human and microbial.

The Bronx was found to be the most diverse borough in terms of microbial species. Brooklyn claimed second place, followed by Manhattan, Queens and Staten Island, where researchers took samples on the Staten Island Railway.

On the human front, Dr. Mason said that, in some cases, the DNA that was found in some subway stations tended to match the neighborhood’s demographic profile. An area with a high concentration of Hispanic residents near Chinatown in Manhattan, for example, yielded a large amount of Hispanic and Asian genes.

In an area of Brooklyn to the south of Prospect Park that roughly encompassed the Kensington and Windsor Terrace neighborhoods, the DNA gathered frequently read as British, Tuscan, and Finnish, three groups not generally associated with the borough. Dr. Mason had an explanation for the finding: Scientists have not yet compiled a reliable database of Irish genes, so the many people of Irish descent who live in the area could be the source of DNA known to be shared with other European groups. The study produced some less appetizing news. Live, antibiotic-resistant bacteria were discovered in 27 percent of the collected samples, though among all the bacteria, only 12 percent could be associated with disease. Researchers also found three samples associated with bubonic plague and two with DNA fragments of anthrax, though they noted that none of those samples showed evidence of being alive, and that neither disease had been diagnosed in New York for some time. The presence of anthrax, Dr. Mason said, “is consistent with the many documented cases of anthrax in livestock in New York State and the East Coast broadly.”

The purpose of the study was not simply to satisfy scientific curiosity, the authors said. By cataloging species now, researchers can compare them against samples taken in the future to determine whether certain diseases, or even substances used as bioterrorism weapons, had spread.

City and transit officials did not sound grateful for the examination.

“As the study clearly indicates, microbes were found at levels that pose absolutely no danger to human life and health,” Kevin Ortiz, a spokesman for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, said in an email. And the city’s health department called the study “deeply flawed” and misleading.

Dr. Mason responded by saying he and his team had simply presented their complete results.

“For us to not report the fragments of anthrax and plague in the context of a full analysis would have been irresponsible,” he said. “Our findings indicate a normal, healthy microbiome, and we welcome others to review the publicly available data and run the same analysis.”

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/06/nyregion/among-the-new-york-city-subways-millions-of-riders-a-study-finds-many-mystery-microbes.html?hp&action=click&pgtype=Homepage&module=mini-moth&region=top-stories-below&WT.nav=top-stories-below

Thanks to Kebmodee for bringing this to the attention of the It’s Interesting community.