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Not Your Father’s World History Part 6:
“Sailors who were still ambulatory scrambled into town.”

28 October 2005

Taiwan Aborigine
Taiwanese Aboriginal Girl
Photo: Leslie Chambers

Curious Article No. 15:

Though absent from most lists, recorded history’s deadliest earthquake occurred on July 5, 1201. It pretty much turned northern Egypt and the Holy Lands inside out and killed 1.1 million. It jarred the white casing stones on the Great Pyramid to the extent that for the first time they were easily removable, and indeed over the next century or so masons stripped it clean to build Cairo.

For Egypt the quake couldn't have come at a worse time. Its population had already been reduced to rampant cannibalism after the Nile missed its annual flood for two years in a row. The scholar Abdel-Latif Al-Baghdadi reported at the time that throngs were stampeding up and down along the river in search of grain; and noblewomen, better fed than most, were begging people to buy them as slaves so they wouldn't be killed and eaten.

The people we know as the Maori, among the world’s least ancient aboriginals, settled New Zealand in around 1300. But their origin was, well, a bit unusual according to Dr. Geoffrey Chambers and Adele Whyte (Maori herself) of Victoria University in Wellington. About 6000 years ago a party of the Ta-p'en-k'eng culture, composed mostly or entirely of women and girls, departed from Taiwan in canoes. Maybe they had had a falling out, or had been dispossessed by some other tribe. Maybe their husbands and sons had come to grief. They moved southeast through the Malay Archipelago and stopped at the island of New Guinea and took on a number of men. These people then paired up and, over a number of generations, fanned out and populated the Philippines and the South Pacific. We know them as Polynesians.

By 1300 one of their clans paddled 1500 miles (2300 km) from Fiji to New Zealand, naming it Aotearoa, where their descendents have lived ever since. Dr. Chambers and Ms Whyte have examined the genetic makeup of a number of male and female Maori and determined that, weirdly enough, the two are entirely different. The women’s ancestors, according to their mitochondrial DNA (which is strictly matrilineal), came from Taiwan and the men’s Y chromosomal DNA came from New Guinea. Next, Maori legend tells us their forbears arrived in New Zealand in only seven canoes. A DNA bottleneck Chambers and Whyte have observed confirms that indeed there were only fifty to sixty women in the founding population, so that story now sounds entirely credible.


The next pandemic after Justinian’s, certainly history’s most famous, was the Black Death of 1347-1351. Best evidence places the source at either northern India or the central Asian mountain lake called Issyk-Kul in Kyrgyzstan. We do know that Issyk-Kul and the Gobi Desert area suffered an unusually high death rate during the 1320s and 1330s and that memorial stones of the period cited a plague. In those days the final leg of the Silk Road brought Asian goods across the Black Sea and into the western Mediterranean. In October of 1347 a fleet returning from that area staggered into the Sicilian port of Messina with most of its crew members either comatose or dead. They tried to evacuate the harbor but sailors who were still ambulatory scrambled into town while looters plundered the infected cargo they'd left behind, plus those ships leaving the port simply docked elsewhere on Sicily or further up along the Italian peninsula and defeated the purpose.

From then until 1351 the Plague annihilated between a quarter and a third of Europe’s population, including Alfonso XI of Castile, Archbishop of Canterbury and mathematician Thomas Bradwardine, and William of Ockham (of Ockham’s Razor). North Africa and the Middle East also crumpled. Many of the horrors of the sixth century repeated themselves — bodies accumulating with no one to bury them, towering inflation (the dead leave their money behind), and crops rotting in the fields unharvested. But this time religion had a firmer hold on the populace and many saw the Plague as God’s punishment. Others fingered the Jews and tortured them into confessing. Hysterical mobs lynched and burned them by the thousands throughout Europe.

To his credit Pope Clement VI, the very same Clement who had so heartlessly sicked the Spanish on the Guanches, did all he could to run interference. He cited the obvious fact that Jews were suffering from the Plague as much as anyone, and among the many edicts he issued on this subject was the Sicvt Ivdeis of July 1348: “...We order by apostolic writings that each of you upon whom this charge has been laid, should straightly command those subject to you, both clerical and lay... not to dare, on their own authority or out of hot-headedness, to capture, strike, wound or kill any Jews or expel them from their service on these grounds; and you should demand obedience under pain of excommunication.” Merchant councils in many German towns also did their best, though it was often futile.

Now bubonic, pneumonic, and septicemic plague all come from the bacterium Yersinia pestis carried by fleas infesting black rats. But the Black Death may have been a different bug. In 2003 a team of researchers from Oxford University tested 121 teeth from 66 skeletons from Black Death mass graves, and they found no genetic trace of Y pestis. There’s also the problem that the incubation periods of the Black Death appear to have been far too brief for Y pestis; and that Iceland and Greenland, where there were no rats at all, fared among the worst. Right now an Ebola-like virus, not a bacterium, seems the likeliest suspect. In any case the Black Death had a devastating effect on society. The labor shortage gave the serfs great power over the terms of their employment, which crippled the aristocracy. And although doctors were powerless to treat the Plague, through its course many of the day were now conducting autopsies (previously taboo) and coming to see disease not as an immutable divine chastening but as a mechanistic process amenable to experimentation and exploration.

Ibn Battuta
Ibn Battuta
On a more pleasant note, one of the era’s globetrotters you don't hear much about was the North African Moor Ibn Battuta. He trekked throughout the Old World between 1325 and 1354, covering some 75,000 miles (100,000 km). At one point he met with the Sultan of Birgi in Turkey, who had a curious souvenir. “He said to me, ‘Have you ever seen a stone that has fallen from the sky?’ I replied, ‘No, nor ever heard of one.’ ‘Well,’ he said, ‘a stone fell from the sky outside this town,’ and thereupon called for it to be brought. A great black stone appeared, very hard and with a glitter in it. I reckon its mass was about a hundredweight. The sultan sent for stone breakers, and four of them came and struck it altogether four times over with iron hammers, but made no dent in it. I was amazed, and he ordered it to be taken back to its place.”

Meteorites were our sole source of iron before we learned to smelt it from ore. For a long time proper ladies and gentlemen scoffed at the very idea of falling stones; but the Weston fireball of December 14, 1807, that was witnessed falling and then retrieved, pretty much clinched it as far as American scientists were concerned. This was seconded by English chemist Edward Howard, who analyzed meteorites chemically and realized they couldn't be terrestrial. An entirely new fear then presented itself, as thoughts turned to our pockmarked moon. What about a really, really BIG stone?

Next: Treasure voyages and human traffic »
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Text © Peter Blinn 2006



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