I love breaking news about history! This one is a few years old, but since the original story happened about 1,500 years ago, I’m not going to worry that I’m late to the update.
The first element of this story is malaria. Malaria is an infectious disease that is spread by mosquitoes. When the mosquito bites you, parasites from the saliva are deposited into your blood. There are generally no signs of illness during the first week. After that, the symptoms are like the flu, with the most well-known symptom being periodic fever and sweats.
Malaria is now preventable and treatable. Most cases occur in tropical regions, such as Sub-Saharan Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Most deaths from malaria are in Africa and are associated with poverty.
But there have been records of these periodic fevers throughout recorded history, and those cases were not always limited to the poorest areas. Malaria was once common in North America and Europe. This includes Rome before the fall of the Roman Empire, generally dated as 476 CE.
I am not an expert on ancient history, not even a little bit, so I will just say that the reasons for the decline and fall of the Roman Empire are much discussed and debated.
So finally, to the breaking news.
Thanks to the knowledge of many experts and the use of modern technology, it has been proven that malaria existed in the Roman Empire. How much that infectious disease had to do with the decline and fall will undoubtedly be a source of debate for a long time.
I recommend you watch this BBC production “Malaria and the Fall of Rome” even though it is 49 minutes long.
What interests me isn’t so much the actual findings, but what it took to get there. I recommend the video so that you can see the work that was done by various experts.
I don’t know if other experts were involved and not mentioned, but here’s what I saw:
- The people digging up the harbor to create a new road, who recognized that they had found something archaeologically interesting and called in the relevant experts.
- The archaeologist who specialized in ships, in this case 16 Roman ships.
- The archaeologist who specialized in pottery and coins, called in to use those objects to establish a date for those ships.
- The archaeologists who were digging at a site, found what they believed to be a Roman villa, and the archaeologist they called in who had more specialized knowledge.
- The forensic anthropologist who was called in to determine the ages of the children whose bones were found at the villa.
- The special forensic expert called in to identify the animal bones buried with the babies.
- The people who did the literature search to find contemporaneous reports of a disease with the same symptoms as malaria.
- The botanist called in to identify the plant ash that was found with the bones of the children.
- The mosquito expert called to identify the physical conditions of the area that would account for the spread of malaria. (Did you know that mosquitoes can only fly about 100 meters?)
- The DNA specialist who used the bones from the villa to analyze for the existence of malaria.
So there’s your breaking news in history, evidence of malaria found in bones from ancient Rome.
But equally important, in my view, is what this story says about the value of teamwork and expertise.