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An iron currency ring and human skull found in the rare cave burial in Gabon, Africa. Source: NOT Engineers

Rare Cave Burial Might Resolve Africa’s Black Death Mystery

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A team led by a geo-archaeologist and a speleologist have discovered a rare cave burial in Africa containing 30 skeletons, drilled cats’ teeth, and iron artifacts. The 14th-century underground burial site was discovered in 2018 deep in Gabon s tropical forest, in the central west of Africa running along the Atlantic coast. Hundreds of artifacts were found scattered among the human remains at the bottom of the cave, which archaeologists say will help paint a picture of this period in Africa s history - of which so little is known.

The expedition is being co-funded by Gabon’s National Agency of National Parks , who oversees the national park system and protecting wildlife and natural resources, and the local environmental branch of Singapore s palm oil giant Olam International . In a Business Alive article the expedition leader geo-archaeologist, Richard Oslisly, 69, said This is a unique discovery in Africa, because human remains are almost nonexistent.”

Human bones, a sea shell, and currency blades found in the cave burial. (NOT Engineers)

Human bones, a sea shell, and currency blades found in the cave burial. ( NOT Engineers )

Tracking the Deads’ Descendants

French researcher Oslisly says the discovery of this cave will enable archaeologists to learn a little more about the people of central Africa, who are “largely unrecorded in history.” And they are off to a good start with the team already having found “30 human skeletons” across the cave’s three levels. They also unearthed “39 pierced teeth” from hyenas and panthers. What’s more, an excess of 500 mostly iron artifacts have been found - including knives, axes and spear tips, and jewelry such as bracelets and collars.

Some iron objects found in the cave. Before realizing the nature of the discovery, a few types of the objects were assembled for a picture: currency-blades, spear head, axe, gong, and an unknown type in form of a crescent. (NOT Engineers)

Some iron objects found in the cave. Before realizing the nature of the discovery, a few types of the objects were assembled for a picture: currency-blades, spear head, axe, gong, and an unknown type in form of a crescent. ( NOT Engineers )

The reason this particular cave discovery is making such archaeological waves was explained by Geoffroy de Saulieu, an archaeologist with France’s Research Institute for Development (IRD), who told PHYS that in Sub-Saharan Africa soils are “very acidic,” so almost all human and animal remains decompose very quickly; and he added that it “is exceptional to obtain these kind of remains.” The scientists sent samples of 10 femurs (thigh bones) for Carbon-14 dating and the results determined the skeletons were from the 14th century. Furthermore, molar teeth have been extracted from skulls and sent to France for DNA testing and for comparative analysis with saliva data from peoples across central Africa.

Oslisly says he hopes to cross-check the data with the DNA tools used by linguists to track down “the descendants of these skeletons.”

Rare and Possibly History Changing Human Remains in the Cave Burial

The indigenous clan who inhabits the area around the cave have virtually no oral records and those that exist only go back one or two centuries, said French anthropologist Louis Perrois in the PHYS article. And when the researcher asked the villagers if they knew of the existence of the cave burial site, they hadn’t a clue. So in March, a team of anthropologists and bone pathology specialists entered the cave to learn more about the diets and illnesses of the buried people, says Oslisly, who is excited that the remains will show “what they died of.”

A kindu, traditional ritual gabonese bell. Next to the kindu are some human long bones. (NOT Engineers)

A kindu, traditional ritual gabonese bell. N ext to the kindu are some human long bones. ( NOT Engineers )

The reason the cause of dea https://www.ancient-origins.net/news-history-archaeology/black-death-0013302th is so important is that many archaeological researchers have suspected Africa was struck by a historic bubonic plague, and the Iroungou bones might hold an answer. According to a March 2019 article published on Science , in the 14th century Black Death swept across Europe, Asia, and “North Africa,” killing up to 50% of the populations of major cities, but archaeologists and historians have assumed that the plague,  Yersinia pestis , carried by fleas infesting rodents, didn't make it across the Sahara Desert .

Not only do Africa's written records make no mention of plague, but no mass graves have ever been found resembling Europe’s “plague pits.” Moreover, neither did 15th and 16th century European explorers record anything about it, and with outbreaks besetting Europe they would have spotted its tell-tale swellings a mile away.

The word "plague" hovers above a victim's face. Drawing by A.L. Tarter, 194-. (CC BY 4.0)

The word "plague" hovers above a victim's face. Drawing by A.L. Tarter, 194-. ( CC BY 4.0 )

Black Death Vs Sahara Desert

However, even with this shortage of evidence, in March 2018 Dr. Anne Stone, an anthropological geneticist who studies ancient pathogens at Arizona State University in Tempe, said in the Science article that new archaeological and genetic data suggests “ Black Death likely did sow devastation in medieval sub-Saharan Africa.” If this theory is actually proved, and then accepted by the scientific community, it would suggest that medieval trade routes linking sub-Saharan Africa with other continents might have played a significant role in the spread and perpetuation of the disease.

Only 12 months ago, Dr. Stone insisted that researchers must “show caution” and that the new evidence “is circumstantial,” and she said what are now ‘magic words’ when she stated, “researchers need ancient DNA from Africa to clinch their case.” And now, thanks to intrepid explorers, researchers have that long sought after 14th century African DNA, which will soon confirm whether or not the cave’s human remains hold traces of the plague, finally answering if the Black Death crossed the Sahara Desert .

Top Image: An iron currency ring and human skull found in the rare cave burial in Gabon, Africa. Source: NOT Engineers

(Editor’s Note: The description of Gabon’s location was updated on 11-3-2020)

By Ashley Cowie

Comments

Philip Olson's picture

Last question.

Why do the least informed post the most?  Never mind, silly question that puts me right there with them.

 

“Since I do not eat beans the antropologists need to put Black Beans with religious artifacts and remove

them from foodstuffs.”  This type if ignorance is quite presidential but does little in the way of learning.

Speed of dark

Rose Winkler's picture

I find hard to believe that these bones will show signs of plague. Why? If the plague killed in Gabon as it did elsewhere,
1) there'd not be a lot of people left to drag all the dead into the cave &
2) why would the survivors want to drag sickly corpses all the way into a narrow cave, when it be easier to put them into a large pit, like was done in Europe.

Gary Manners's picture

Thank you for noting the error. The information has now been corrected.

Gary

Gabon is in central west Africa rather then south-east Africa, the Atlantic washes the western shore of the continent. Could it be that the article refers to a place on another planet?

Lioba62's picture

Africa is mineral and ore rich: follow these links: https://www.csu.edu/dosa/AAMRC/news1.htm and https://www.oxfordbibliographies.com/view/document/obo-9780199846733/obo-9780199846733-0027.xml Do some research Pete! Our diamonds all come from Africa, platinum, gold, silver. Why not iron ore? They had bronze too. The African governments don’t even own the rights to these precious metals and the labor are exposed to very dangerous extraction chemicals without proper protection. Next time you buy a spark plug for your car or lawn tractor, its got a platinum tip to last almost forever, like a diamond.

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