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Research article - Peer-reviewed, 2022

Palaeoecological data indicates land-use changes across Europe linked to spatial heterogeneity in mortality during the Black Death pandemic

Izdebski, A.; Guzowski, P.; Poniat, R.; Masci, L.; Palli, J.; Vignola, C.; Bauch, M.; Cocozza, C.; Fernandes, R.; Ljungqvist, F. C.; Newfield, T.; Seim, A.; Abel-Schaad, D.; Alba-Sanchez, F.; Bjoerkman, L.; Brauer, A.; Brown, A.; Czerwinski, S.; Ejarque, A.; Filoc, M.;
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Historical accounts of the mortality outcomes of the Black Death plague pandemic are variable across Europe, with much higher death tolls suggested in some areas than others. Here the authors use a 'big data palaeoecology' approach to show that land use change following the pandemic was spatially variable across Europe, confirming heterogeneous responses with empirical data.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.

Published in

Nature ecology & evolution
2022, volume: 6, number: 3, pages: 297-306

Authors' information

Izdebski, A.
Jagiellonian University
Guzowski, P.
University of Bialystok
Poniat, R.
University of Bialystok
Masci, L.
Sapienza University Rome
Palli, J.
Tuscia University
Vignola, C.
Sapienza University Rome
Cocozza, C.
University of Munich
Fernandes, R.
University of Oxford
Fernandes, R.
Masaryk University Brno
Ljungqvist, F. C.
Swedish Collegium for Advanced Study (SCAS)
Ljungqvist, F. C.
Stockholm University
Ljungqvist, F. C.
Stockholm Univ
Newfield, T.
Georgetown University
Seim, A.
University of Freiburg
Seim, A.
University of Innsbruck
Abel-Schaad, D.
University of Granada
Alba-Sanchez, F.
University of Granada
Brauer, A.
University of Potsdam
Brauer, A.
Helmholtz-Center Potsdam GFZ German Research Center for Geosciences
Brown, A.
University of Reading
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