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Genghis Khan's Death May Be Less Sexy Than the Legends

New study suggests he was felled by bubonic plague
By John Johnson,  Newser Staff
Posted Feb 21, 2021 10:10 AM CST

(Newser) – All kinds of legends exist to explain the death of Mongol ruler Genghis Khan 800 years ago—a poisoned arrow, perhaps? But a new study puts forth an explanation that will sound pretty familiar to people today. That is, a pandemic did him in. As Live Science reports, researchers studying Khan's death have concluded that he most likely died of bubonic plague. In their study in the International Journal of Infectious Diseases, the researchers cite an ancient historical text from China that says Khan came down with a fever in the midst of a military campaign on Aug. 18, 1227, and died eight days later. While others have floated the idea of typhoid fever as the culprit, the text doesn't mention telltale symptoms of that ailment such as abdominal pain or vomiting. What's more, it's known that bubonic plague had begun ravaging Khan's army the year before he died.

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"The vague terminology used to describe the king’s symptoms and the duration of the illness make it more reasonable to opt for bubonic plague," the researchers write. Co-author Elena Varotto of the University of Catania in Italy tells Live Science that our own coronavirus pandemic illustrates the same point as Khan's death—that even powerful leaders cannot be shielded from a fast-spreading disease. Or as a post at Ancient Origins puts it, "the researchers remind us that infectious diseases have no respect for human power, and they care not for one’s class, education, pay-grade or religion." If you're wondering why scientists don't try to extract DNA from Khan's tomb to hunt for clues, it's because nobody knows where the tomb is, as this piece at the BBC explains. (Still, people are using novel approaches in the search.)

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