Archaeology Odyssey 4:5, September/October 2001

Field Notes

Archaeology Odyssey

Possibly the Lowly Mosquito

Everybody blames the barbarians for the fall of Rome. Some point the finger at the 410 A.D. attack by the Germanic Goths. Others say the final end came later, around the time of the 476 A.D. deposition of Augustulus, the last emperor of the western Roman empire, by the barbarian Odoacer.

A recent study, however, identifies another culprit, Plasmodium falciparum, a virulent strain of malaria that hit the area around Rome in 450 A.D. According to David Soren of the University of Arizona, the malaria epidemic would have severely weakened the empire, making it susceptible to barbarian invasions.

From 1988 to 1992, Soren’s team excavated a mid-fifth century A.D. cemetery 70 miles north of Rome. They uncovered more than 50 skeletons (including the one shown at left) of stillborn infants, newborn infants and small children, all buried within a brief time span. Some of the older children had pitted skulls, a sign of infectious disease.

Researchers at the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology, in England, analyzed DNA samples from the leg bones of a 3-year-old child to try to determine the cause of death. The DNA matched that of people infected with Plasmodium falciparum, a disease to which infants and small children are particularly susceptible. This strain of malaria also causes miscarriages in pregnant women, explaining the large number of stillborn skeletons found at the site.

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