June 18, 2015

The Plague of Athens Was Not Ebola, Sheez

Live Science has a piece out covering a new article in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases by a doctor at the University of Michigan who is retro-diagnosing plagued Athenians with ebola.  Because why not?

I don't have time to thoroughly deal with this, since it's been a long day of writing already and there's yet more to write, but the new article does not in any way mention the 2006 article "DNA examination of ancient dental pulp incriminates typhoid fever as a probable case of the Plague of Athens."

DNA.  In ancient skeletons.  Of plague victims.

Plan of the Kerameikos mass burial.
Figure 1 in Papagrigorakis et al. 2006.
Even if the author of the new article thinks the 2006 piece is full of crap, he should at least deal with it. I mean, maybe the 2006 piece has problems (such as, maybe the skeletons in the cemetery were not from the plague but just all have typhoid fever anyway). But his article is full of assessment of the "clinical" symptoms of the plague based on Thucydides.

I'm not a huge fan of retro-diagnoses, but in the case of historical figures, I'll allow it.  After all, bringing modern medical knowledge to bear on ancient cases seems like a reasonable way to generate hypotheses and new interpretations of the past.

But when there's already DNA evidence of a pathogen from a plague pit?  Yeah, time to stop shoehorning ebola into ancient Athens.



Papagrigorakis MJ, Yapijakis C, Synodinos PN, Baziotopoulou-Valavani E (2006). DNA examination of ancient dental pulp incriminates typhoid fever as a probable cause of the Plague of Athens. International journal of infectious diseases : IJID : official publication of the International Society for Infectious Diseases, 10 (3), 206-14 PMID: 16412683.

Kazanjian P (2015). Ebola in Antiquity? Clinical infectious diseases : an official publication of the Infectious Diseases Society of America PMID: 26033924.

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