A new genetic research project has revealed evidence of the profound impact highly infectious and dangerous diseases may have had on the Bronze Age collapse in the Mediterranean and Near East region. These new findings may finally explain the rapid and mysterious collapse of Bronze Age societies between about 1200 and 1150 BC.
In this landmark study, carried out by scientists from the Max Planck Institute, Temple University, and the British School at Athens, which has just been published in the journal Current Biology , archaeologists and genetic experts link a pair of deadly pathogens to theoretical disease outbreaks that may have caused population collapse in two Bronze Age societies: the Old Kingdom of Egypt (2613 to 2181 BC) in northern Africa and the Akkadian Empire (2334 to 2154 BC) in what is now southern Iraq, Turkey and Syria.
The two disease carriers in question were the bacteria Salmonella enterica , which causes typhoid fever, and the infamous Yersinia pestis , the bacteria responsible for the Black Death plague that decimated the population of medieval Europe. These are two of the deadliest microbes human beings have ever encountered, and their presence could have easily triggered significant heavy population loss and rampant social upheaval in ancient societies.
Previous studies of population and general Bronze Age collapse, including the end of the Old Kingdom Egypt and the Akkadian Empire, have focused primarily on climate change, which could have caused droughts leading to water shortages and crop failures. But while alterations in long-term weather patterns might have played some role in the turmoil each culture experienced; this new research suggests disease outbreaks were highly important Bronze Age collapse factors.
The location of Hagios Charalambos cave on the northeast side of Crete, where new evidence points to deadly typhoid fever and plague to explain the sudden Bronze Age collapse in the Near East and Mediterranean. ( Current Biology )
Dental Analysis Reveals Bronze Age Collapse Diseases
The German, American, and British archaeologists and genetic scientists were able to make the connection between disease outbreaks and population and societal Bronze Age collapse in the Mediterranean region following their examination of human remains recovered from a cave known as Hagios Charalambos on the island of Crete (home of the Minoan civilization during that time).
This accessible cave on Crete’s Lasithi Plateau was used as a secondary burial site by Mediterranean peoples throughout most of the Bronze Age (3300 to 1200 BC). Hagios Charalambos contains more human remains than any other archaeological site in the region, and the DNA in its impressive skeletal collection is better preserved than in most places because of favorable soil and temperature conditions. This allows for large-scale, cross-cultural genetic studies that can reveal fascinating details about the lives and lifestyles of peoples who occupied the region in ancient times.
While previous studies of the bones of ancients recovered from Hagios Charalambos had showed definite signs of pathogen infection, scientists had not been able to identify the exact nature of these diseases or fully interpret their overall impact.
To explore the issue further, the archaeologists and geneticists involved in this new study obtained 68 teeth found during excavations at Hagios Charalambos, which belonged to individuals who had been buried in the cave between approximately 2300 and 1900 BC. Well-preserved teeth can retain traces of bacteria and other microbes for much longer than other types of buried skeletal remains, and that makes them ideal for use by archaeo-geneticists seeking data about past infectious disease outbreaks.
In their analysis of these tooth samples, the experts found clear evidence of the presence of the two notorious infectious agents, Salmonella enterica and Yersinia pestis , in the DNA samples of four individuals. Considering how highly contagious these microbes likely would have been, they could have circulated during epidemics that swept through the Mediterranean and Near East in the late third millennium BC and caused massive waves of premature death in the Old Kingdom of Egypt , Akkad, and elsewhere.
A Word of Caution
It should be noted that there is some degree of speculation involved in this tentative conclusion. For one thing, the individuals who’d carried the plague and typhoid fever bacteria were Minoan residents of Crete and did not come from Egypt or Akkad. The logical conclusion is that the bacteria would have traveled far and wide moving from host to host and would not have been confined to one small island. But at this point that is only a presumption that is not backed by any solid proof.
Another issue is that the strains of Yersinia pestis and Salmonella enterica found in Hagios Charalambos cave are different from the versions responsible for epidemics in more recent times. The two strains found in the cave have been extinct for a long time, and that creates a degree of uncertainly with respect to their transmissibility. They likely passed from person to person quite freely, but this cannot be proven conclusively from the available evidence.
This panorama of the Lasithi Plateau shows the Hagios Charalambos cave location, at the base of the white stone mountains, where scientists may have found the explanation for the Bronze Age collapse in the Mediterranean and Near East. (Haloorange / Copyrighted free use )
Epidemics Have Changed the World, Then and Now
There is no question that epidemics were an issue in the Bronze Age world.
“The plague bacterium Yersinia pestis, which was involved in some of the most destructive historical pandemics, circulated across Eurasia at least from the onset of the 3rd millennium BC,” the German, American, and British researchers confirmed in their Current Biology article. “But the challenging preservation of ancient DNA in warmer climates has restricted the identification of Y. pestis from this period to temperate climatic regions.”
The latter part of this statement demonstrates why the discoveries at Hagios Charalambos represent such a noteworthy milestone. The recovery of well-preserved remains that included traces of deadly contagious disease agents from a Bronze Age site on Crete, which is centrally located in the Mediterranean is extremely rare.
Crete would have served as a crossroads for people traversing the sea by boat. This signifies the likelihood that dangerous bacteria were circulating widely in the region at that time. And it also suggests that climate change , generally thought to be the prevailing reason for Bronze Age collapse, may have had less impact than believed.
Naturally, further discoveries of well-preserved human skeletal remains would provide the most convincing evidence that deadly epidemics of plague and/or typhoid fever were experienced at a horrible scale and over a large region during the Near East and Mediterranean Bronze Age collapse.
This new study has produced some promising results, but more supporting data is needed to verify the importance of disease outbreaks to the collapse of powerful ancient societies like the Old Kingdom and the Akkadian empire .
Top image: Typhoid fever salmonella bacteria like this, according to the latest study, were a primary killer along with the plague that could well be the missing reason for the sudden Bronze Age collapse of Near East and Mediterranean societies. Source: sveta / Adobe Stock
By Nathan Falde