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Pharaonic Egypt and the origins of plague

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Abstract Aim 

This paper examines the possibility that bubonic plague was a disease endemic in the wild rodent population of Egypt and East Africa. Location 

The study focuses on Egypt and the Nile Valley during the Pharaonic period. Methods 

This paper presents a hypothesis based on archaeoentomological, archaeozoological and biogeographical information on the insect and small mammal species involved in the spread of plague, as well as relevant information from early literary sources. Results 

The primary host for the rat flea Xenopsylla cheopis is the Nile rat, Arvicanthis niloticus. Urbanization and the Nile floods brought into contact humans and the Nile rat and its ectoparasite, Xenopsylla cheopis, which was able to move to a newly introduced host the synanthropic Rattus rattus. The existence of large numbers of human fleas and squalid conditions from the Workmens’ Village at Amarna, evidence for nile rats and black rats from Pharaonic sites and descriptions of an epidemic disease in the Amarna letters, the Hittitic archives and the Ebers papyrus with references to swelling buboes, present a new scenario for the origins of the disease. Main conclusions 

Most modern researchers have regarded the origins of bubonic plague as a disease of Central Asiatic rodents. Here, I examine the evidence for plague in Egypt, and suggest that the bacillus Yersinia pestis was primarily a disease of the Nile rat, Arvicanthis niloticus, which only achieved epidemic proportions when its vector, the tropical rat flea, Xenopsylla cheopis, was able to make the jump to a new host, the black or ship rat, Rattus rattus, introduced from India or indirectly via Mesopotamia during the Pharaonic period. Synanthropy and a high death rate in the new host lead to frequent transfer to human populations and stochastic waves of pandemics.

Keywords: Arvicanthis niloticus; Bubonic plague; Nile floods; Pharaonic Egypt; Rattus rattus; Xenopsylla cheopis; urbanization

Document Type: Research Article


Publication date: February 1, 2004

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