The Black Death Had a Silver Lining

'Strong force of natural selection' left behind a much healthier population

By Arden Dier,  Newser Staff

Posted May 8, 2014 11:11 AM CDT

(Newser) – If you can find an upside to the decimation of tens of millions of Europeans, a new study has it, per the BBC: It seems that the Black Death, which killed some 30% to 50% of Europe's population between 1347 and 1351, had the accidental effect of leaving survivors and their descendants healthier and longer-lived than those who came before the epidemic. Researcher Sharon DeWitte analyzed nearly 600 London skeletons, dated before and after the Black Death—464 between 1000 and 1300, and 133 between 1350 and 1538, Real Clear Science and Medical News Today report—and found a higher proportion lived to middle age or beyond in the years following the plague.

"Even in the face of major threats to health, such as repeated plague outbreaks, several generations of people who lived after the Black Death were healthier in general than people who lived before the epidemic," DeWitte notes. Why? "By targeting frail people of all ages, and killing them by the hundreds of thousands within an extremely short period of time, the Black Death might have represented a strong force of natural selection and removed the weakest individuals on a very broad scale within Europe," DeWitte writes. Pair that with the fact that depopulation led to lower food prices, better diets, and higher wages, and you'll find post-plague London had a better standard of living than before the Black Death hit. (In March, excavated skeletons revealed even more Black Death secrets.)

In this Wednesday, March 26, 2014 photo, one of 25 skeletons found in central London and thought to be from a cemetery for victims of the bubonic plague that ravaged Europe in the 14th century.
In this Wednesday, March 26, 2014 photo, one of 25 skeletons found in central London and thought to be from a cemetery for victims of the bubonic plague that ravaged Europe in the 14th century.   (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis)
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