The Black Death First Came to England 4,000 Years Ago

Think the Black Death first invaded England in 1348? Think again.

New research conducted by scientists at the Francis Crick Institute indicates the bacteria responsible for one of the most profoundly impactful events in human history was present in England a whopping 4,000 years ago. The team published its research in the journal Nature Communications.

“The team identified two cases of Yersinia pestis in human remains found in a mass burial in Charterhouse Warren in Somerset and one in a ring cairn monument in Levens in Cumbria,” a spokesperson for the Francis Crick Institute wrote in a press release.

a green field with a pit

A photo of Charterhouse Warren, one of the burial sites from the study, taken in 1972. Photo: Tony Audsley


According to the release, radiocarbon dating indicates the three people — two pre-pubescent children and a middle-aged woman — all lived “at roughly the same time.” Even more interesting, it appears that the plague isn’t what led to their deaths. The bodies recovered from the mass burial showed signs of trauma.

You might be asking yourself, “Wait a second, didn’t the plague kill up to 40 percent of England’s population between 1348 and 1350? How were these ancient people alive long enough for something (or someone) else to kill them?”

Good question.

The answer is that 4,000 years is a long, long time by bacterial standards. It is long enough for Y. pestis to develop a whole new toolkit for messing around with humans. In short, the bacteria found in the bodies is a different strain than the ones that caused the Great Mortality, as it was called in 1348.

The teeth tell all

Scientists discovered the Y. pestis samples by drilling into the teeth of 34 cadavers recovered from the two sites. The dental pulp they contain often captures DNA remnants of infectious diseases as part of the body’s immune response.

The teeth of three of the bodies contained enough Y. pestis genetic material to identify it as a Late Neolithic or Bronze Age pathogen. Called the LNBA strain, it lacked the genes needed for transmission via fleas. Fleas were most commonly responsible for spreading the plague in 1348.

Scientists have discovered the LNBA strain in other ancient remains across Eurasia, but this is the first time it’s cropped up as far west as England.

Map showing the distribution of LNBA Yersinia pestis strains

Map showing the distribution of LNBA Yersinia pestis strains. New genomes sequenced in the recent study are in purple. Graphic: Pooja Swali et al./Nature Communications


“The ability to detect ancient pathogens from degraded samples, from thousands of years ago, is incredible,” Pooja Swali, a Ph.D. student at Crick and author on the paper, said in the press release. “These genomes can inform us of the spread and evolutionary changes of pathogens in the past, and hopefully help us understand which genes may be important in the spread of infectious diseases.”

I don’t have to tell you, a human being alive in 2023, why studying the mechanisms behind how infectious diseases evolve and spread is more important than ever. But just in case, Pontus Skoglund, group leader of the Ancient Genomics Laboratory at the Crick, elaborated.

“We understand the huge impact of many historical plague outbreaks, such as the Black Death, on human societies and health, but ancient DNA can document infectious disease much further into the past,” Skoglund said in the press release. “Future research will do more to reveal how our genomes responded to such diseases in the past, and the evolutionary arms race with the pathogens themselves, which can help us to understand the impact of diseases in the present on the future.”

That’s good news, as some forecasters expect the next pandemic right about…

*looks ominously at watch.*

Andrew Marshall

Andrew Marshall is an award-winning painter, photographer, and freelance writer. Andrew’s essays, illustrations, photographs, and poems can be found scattered across the web and in a variety of extremely low-paying literary journals.
You can find more of his work at, @andrewmarshallimages on Instagram and Facebook, and @pawn_andrew on Twitter (for as long as that lasts).