Not Your Father’s World History Part 6:|
“Sailors who were still ambulatory scrambled into town.”
28 October 2005
Taiwanese Aboriginal Girl|
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
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
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