Palaeoecological data indicates land-use changes across Europe linked to spatial heterogeneity in mortality during the Black Death pandemic
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Izdebski, A... [et al.]. Palaeoecological data indicates land-use changes across Europe linked to spatial heterogeneity in mortality during the Black Death pandemic. Nat Ecol Evol (2022). [https://doi.org/10.1038/s41559-021-01652-4]
SponsorshipMax Planck Independent Research Group; Palaeo-Science and History Group; Estonian Research Council PRG323 PUT1173; European Research Council (ERC) European Commission FP7 263735 MSC 655659; Georgetown Environmental Initiative; Latvian Ministry of Education and Science LZP-2020/2-0060 LLNL-JRNL-820941; National Science Foundation (NSF) GSS-1228126; Polish-Swiss Research Programme 013/2010 086/2010; Ministry of Science and Higher Education, Poland N306 275635; Polish National Science Centre 2019/03/X/ST10/00849 2015/17/B/ST10/01656 2015/17/B/ST10/03430 2018/31/B/ST10/02498 N N304 319636; SCIEX 12.286; Spanish Government REDISCO-HAR2017-88035-P FPU16/00676; Swedish Research Council; European Commission 421-2010-1570 2018-01272; Volkswagen Foundation Freigeist Fellowship Dantean Anomaly; Spanish Government RTI2018-101714-B-I00; OP RDE, MEYS project CZ.02.1.01/0.0/0.0/16_019/0000728
The Black Death (1347–1352 ce) is the most renowned pandemic in human history, believed by many to have killed half of Europe’s population. However, despite advances in ancient DNA research that conclusively identified the pandemic’s causative agent (bacterium Yersinia pestis), our knowledge of the Black Death remains limited, based primarily on qualitative remarks in medieval written sources available for some areas of Western Europe. Here, we remedy this situation by applying a pioneering new approach, ‘big data palaeoecology’, which, starting from palynological data, evaluates the scale of the Black Death’s mortality on a regional scale across Europe. We collected pollen data on landscape change from 261 radiocarbon-dated coring sites (lakes and wetlands) located across 19 modern-day European countries. We used two independent methods of analysis to evaluate whether the changes we see in the landscape at the time of the Black Death agree with the hypothesis that a large portion of the population, upwards of half, died within a few years in the 21 historical regions we studied. While we can confirm that the Black Death had a devastating impact in some regions, we found that it had negligible or no impact in others. These inter-regional differences in the Black Death’s mortality across Europe demonstrate the significance of cultural, ecological, economic, societal and climatic factors that mediated the dissemination and impact of the disease. The complex interplay of these factors, along with the historical ecology of plague, should be a focus of future research on historical pandemics.