Another mystery of the ancient world has been solved with modern DNA technology! The Athenian plague described by Thucydides in his classic “History of the Peloponnesian War” has been shown by modern DNA testing to be typhoid fever.
Manolis Papagrigorakis and her colleagues at the University of Athens picked three random teeth samples from the plague victims and extracted the dental pulp. This soft core under the hard tooth covering can store pathogens and other information about the body for centuries. The researchers also tested two modern teeth to make sure that no false results were indicated.
Proceeding randomly through a list of possible causes, Papagrigorakis’ team tested the pulp for the bacteria responsible for the bubonic plague, typhus, anthrax, tuberculosis, cowpox and catscratch disease before finding a match in Salmonella enterica serovar Typhi — the bacteria responsible for typhoid fever.
Typhoid fever — transmitted by contaminated food or water–causes fever, rash and diarrhea, all closely matching Thucydides’ account of the terrible plague. The only thing that does not match up is the quick onset of the disease, because modern cases of typhoid fever typically take longer to gestate. “This inconsistency may be explained by a possible evolution of typhoid fever over time,” Papagrigorakis writes in the paper published online in the International Journal of Infectious Diseases. “Considering the overcrowding and unsanitary conditions [especially regarding the water supply] within the walls of the besieged Athens, a typhoid epidemic would have been likely to break out.”
Here’s the full article (PDF format).