In today’s world, it’s incredibly easy to spread deadly diseases all throughout the planet. Take COVID-19 for example, it originated in China with its first known case dating back to November of 2019. And now, just eight months later, there are around 16 million people worldwide who have been affected by the virus with over 600,000 deaths.
However, if we look back several centuries ago, it was much harder to cause a global outbreak as there weren't any planes flying in and out of countries and it took much longer for people to get around. With that being said, it still didn’t stop the deadly smallpox virus from killing millions of people in the worst global pandemic in history. And based on a new study, Vikings are being blamed for the global outbreak.
Smallpox was a viral infection that was caused by the variola virus and produced vomiting, headaches, fever, and a horrible rash that turned into sores and pustules that often left behind scars. It was extremely deadly as approximately 30% of those who caught the virus ended up dying. Thankfully, in 1980, the virus was eradicated but only after taking the lives of more than 300 million people just in the 20th century. Although the origin of the virus is still unclear, it is believed that it may have been transmitted from rodents to humans thousands of years ago.
Even though the first known victim of the deadly virus was Pharaoh Ramses V of Egypt who passed away back in 1157 BC, the global outbreak of smallpox which happened many years later has been blamed on the Vikings.
According to teeth samples belonging to Vikings from the 7th century (the Viking age lasted from approximately 700 to 1100 AD), they were the ones who helped spread the virus to Britain as well as to other parts of our planet. Experts found extinct strains of the virus in the teeth, although that strain was different than the more modern smallpox. The fact that the ancient strain of the virus was significantly different than the more recent type of smallpox suggests that it evolved throughout the years. (Pictures can be seen here.)
Researchers believe that by finding out more information about smallpox, it can help them battle more modern day viruses. “Knowledge from the past can protect us in the present,” explained Terry Jones who is a computational biologist at the University of Cambridge as well as one of the authors of study. He went on to say, “When an animal or plant goes extinct, it isn't coming back. But mutations can re-occur or revert and viruses can mutate or spill over from the animal reservoir,” adding, “So there will always be another zoonosis — a disease which can be transmitted to humans from animals.”
Several archaeological sites were examined by Dr. Jones and his colleagues for signs of smallpox and they did find extinct strains of it in human remains from eleven Viking era burial sites in Norway, Denmark, the United Kingdom, Russia, and Öland (island off the coast of Sweden).
As for how the Vikings spread the virus around the world, St John's, Cambridge zoologist and another author of the study, Eske Willerslev, provided an explanation, “We already knew Vikings were moving around Europe and beyond — and we now know they had smallpox,” adding, “People travelling around the world quickly spread COVID-19 — and it is likely Vikings spread smallpox. Just back then, they traveled by ship rather than by plane.”
Even though they did spread the virus, it’s still unclear whether or not smallpox killed the Vikings whose remains were analyzed by experts. And interestingly enough, the virus was still detected in their remains approximately 1,400 years after their death, so it’s definitely a possibility.