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Smallpox in Northern Europe during the Viking Age

In times of pandemic, we realise once more the importance of learning from past epidemics to prepare for the next one. Now we struggle with the coronavirus. In the past, there was smallpox caused by the variola virus. The WHO declared the disease eliminated worldwide only by 1980. When it started, however, nobody knows. There are traces and records from ancient Egyptian times. But the first confirmed case dates to the seventeenth century. A recent study in Science pushes this date back to the Viking Age.

Researchers used a group of under 2,000 individuals. The remains were from Eurasia and the Americas dating from B.C.E. until early modern times. Thirteen cases showed smallpox, and eleven turned out to be northern Europeans who lived between the sixth and eleventh century. They were from Scandinavia, western Russia and one from the Oxford mass grave at St. John’s College in the U.K. All had a strain of smallpox that is now extinct.

This is the first case of the disease found in northern Europe as early as the Viking Age. What its impact was, or how the disease was contracted in this region in the first place, remain interesting questions that hopefully will be answered one day. Meanwhile, the discovery provides fresh opportunities to study how smallpox changed. In turn, this can help to understand how viruses work and thus how to anticipate and deal with them. In the case of smallpox, they stopped it with a vaccine.

Sources and Further Reading

Barbara Mühlemann, Lasse Vinner, Ashot Margaryan, et al. ‘Diverse variola virus (smallpox) strains were widespread in northern Europe in the Viking Age,’ in: Science Volume 369.6502 (2020). DOI 10.1126/science.aaw8977.

Nicola Davis, ‘Researchers find the earliest confirmed case of smallpox,’ The Guardian Published 23 July 2020. Last Accessed 28 July 2020.

Francesca Giuliani-Hoffman, ‘Diverse smallpox strains were widespread in the Viking Age, new study reveals,’ CNN Health Published 25 July 2020 (updated). Last Accessed 28 July 2020.

‘Smallpox,’ WHO. Last Accessed 28 July 2020.

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