Nasty, heathen, Asian gerbils were responsible for European plagues

It was fleas on the giant gerbils of central Asia which were to blame. Wet springs followed by warm summers caused giant gerbil populations in the heathen wilds of central Asia to boom. The plague carrying fleas they were infested with also boomed. The fleas jumped – as fleas are wont to do – onto domestic animals and onto humans. These thoughtless Asians forced their trade onto hapless, innocent, Christian Europeans along the Silk Road and through European harbour ports. The fleas, which carried the plague bacteria, jumped again to European rats, found the living good and multiplied. This was back in the 1300s. And for 400 years it was waves of Asian gerbils and their fleas which preyed upon the hapless Europeans. The plague outbreaks in Europe came 15 years after the wet springs and warm summers in Asia. The poor innocent European rats were demonised quite wrongly. This we now know by studying tree rings.

It is, in fact, the Asians who must be blamed for gerbils and the plague and also for language, for agriculture and for religion.

Boris V Schmid et al, Climate-driven introduction of the Black Death and successive plague reintroductions into Europe, PNAS, doi: 10.1073/pnas.1412887112

AbstractThe Black Death, originating in Asia, arrived in the Mediterranean harbors of Europe in 1347 CE, via the land and sea trade routes of the ancient Silk Road system. This epidemic marked the start of the second plague pandemic, which lasted in Europe until the early 19th century. This pandemic is generally understood as the consequence of a singular introduction of Yersinia pestis, after which the disease established itself in European rodents over four centuries. To locate these putative plague reservoirs, we studied the climate fluctuations that preceded regional plague epidemics, based on a dataset of 7,711 georeferenced historical plague outbreaks and 15 annually resolved tree-ring records from Europe and Asia. We provide evidence for repeated climate-driven reintroductions of the bacterium into European harbors from reservoirs in Asia, with a delay of 15 ± 1 y. Our analysis finds no support for the existence of permanent plague reservoirs in medieval Europe.

The gerbil theory is not implausible but it smacks a bit of confirmation bias. The 15 year time lag is less than convincing. A gerbil lives for 3 to 4 years. A flea lives 30 – 90 days. Correlation is not causation. That European outbreaks of plague came 5 gerbil lifetimes later than the population boom in Asia, and about 60 flea generations later than the flea which first infested the sorry gerbil, is a little far-fetched.


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