Plague DNA from Late Antique Bavaria

The first plague pandemic was not recorded in Bavaria, or anywhere in the Germanic territory that I am aware of. The grave was not a typical ‘plague pit’. It was a rich grave of an adult woman and a young girl (individuals 166 and 167) from a cemetery in Aschheim, Bavaria. With no visible signs of illness or trauma, the remains were sent for a full genetic workup where they a revealed big surprise.

Ingrid Wiechmann extracted DNA from several teeth from each skeleton. She confirmed their gender by amplifying the amelogenin gene, and failure to amplify the Y specific marker. They were unable to prove that these individuals are mother and child because nuclear DNA was inconsistently amplified from the child. The mitochondrial DNA did amplify well and both yielded group 2A–C, haplotype 52, suggesting that they could be from the same matrilinear group.

So far, all of this was basically expected, but then Wiechmann amplified a section of the Yersinia pestis pla gene from each skeleton.  The plague testing was a stab in the dark based purely on the sixth century date for the remains and lack of other discernible causes of death. This should be a game changer.

This study is very important for plague research, particularly for first pandemic research, for three reasons. It provided timely support for Y. pestis as the agent of the medieval plagues in Europe. Yersinia skeptics had been growing quite loud and insistent lately, some even going so far as to claim that the agent in northern Europe was different than around the Mediterranean! Finding DNA from the first pandemic period also shows that it should be possible to extract plague DNA from the entire period of the late antique  and medieval plagues. Second, recovery of plague DNA came from a region where plague had never been previously reported in contemporary documents or by modern testing. When you look at the map below and realize that there are no plague reports from Bavaria or anywhere east of it, you realize how small and coastal our contemporary documentary record is for the first pandemic.

Mapping the first pandemic beyond the European coast and former Roman province is really in the court of the physical anthropologists. The documentary evidence for the first pandemic is really slim. This is a problem that archaeologists can solve if they begin routinely screening period graves. Immunological screening by the new immunochromographic (dipstick-like) test should be cheaper and more sensitive (Pusch et al, 2004 & Bianucci et al, 2008). This test can probably be done by archaeologists themselves. Extracting DNA from these remains will also be important in determining how many clones caused the waves of the first pandemic, and that will tell us how many times plague was introduced to Europe.

The third reason this find is so important is that it was found in a very normal, high status grave. This woman and child were carefully buried with “conspicuous grave goods” including a pair of bow fibulae one of which had a runic inscription on the back. These bow fibulae are considered to be high status goods in sixth century southwestern Germany reflected in this grave by leather coverings for them on the belt of each individual. Wiechmann and Grupe suggest that these non-locally made items may have been inherited. Finding plague in such carefully prepared graves in a cemetery that showed no “hints of mass infection or epidemic” suggests that plague victims could be in any period grave without obvious other cause of death. It seems likely that plague victims are being overlooked in many sixth and seventh century cemeteries.


Wiechmann I, & Grupe G (2005). Detection of Yersinia pestis DNA in two early medieval skeletal finds from Aschheim (Upper Bavaria, 6th century A.D.). American journal of physical anthropology, 126 (1), 48-55 PMID: 15386257

Bianucci, R., Rahalison, L., Massa, E., Peluso, A., Ferroglio, E., & Signoli, M. (2008). Technical note: A rapid diagnostic test detects plague in ancient human remains: An example of the interaction between archeological and biological approaches (southeastern France, 16th–18th centuries) American Journal of Physical Anthropology, 136 (3), 361-367 DOI: 10.1002/ajpa.20818

Pusch CM, Rahalison L, Blin N, Nicholson GJ, & Czarnetzki A (2004). Yersinial F1 antigen and the cause of Black Death. The Lancet infectious diseases, 4 (8), 484-5 PMID: 15288817

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