Sunday, August 22, 2004

Roman Rat

New Scientist

What's so interesting about rats?

It was not certain what date the black rat, Rattus rattus, arrived in Europe. Originally it came from central Asia. There was a belief that it had entered Europe with the returning crusaders at the beginning of the 12th century, but no one had proved that for certain. I found it very puzzling. The commercial links between Europe and the Roman empire's oriental ports were so dense and important that I found it impossible to believe that the rat had not come over earlier. So we went digging for it - the rat, that is - in older layers.

Why does it matter when the black rat got to Europe?

There had been a huge plague lasting from the 6th to the 8th centuries, known as the Justinian Plague, which affected countries around the Mediterranean. In France it did not spread beyond the south. Now because this pandemic exploded before archaeologists said the black rat had arrived from the orient, in the 1940s people began to argue that the vector could not be the rat flea after all. They suggested that the human flea was responsible for transmitting this plague in Europe. It seemed to me that the archaeological foundations for that theory were flimsy.

So what did you do?

Starting in 1983, I created a map. A synthesis of all the digs where the black rat had been found. That way I could study its arrival and spread in Europe. I proved that it came in with the Romans. It arrived first on islands in the Mediterranean in the 1st century, then spread to the continent. In the temperate climate of Europe the black rat cannot live freely as it does in India. It is obliged to stay with man: that's its fate. So it emerged from my own and other people's work that the black rat had followed the Roman trade routes. By the time the Justinian plague broke out, the black rat's habitat covered the exact area of France that was affected by the disease. The black rat's invasion of Europe was complete by the 12th or 13th century. . . .

[pw - notes that recent 2004 medical research reveals unexpected HIV-AIDS resistance in survivors of the "Black Deaths" . . which means many of us in the present Post-Roman populations of Western Europe. We are here because our ancestors lived "to tell the tale". The other unfortunates are extinct and only see the light of day again in the pits that archaeology endlessly records.]


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