The study of traces of lead in the centuries-old ice of Greenland and the Russian Arctic allowed scientists to find new evidence that the medieval plague epidemic was a real catastrophe for the European economy.
“The steady increase in lead concentration in the ices formed in the early and late Middle Ages indicates that the European economy was developing rapidly at that time. This growth stopped in the XIII-XVI centuries, when Europe was shocked by plague epidemics and the lead concentration in the ice fell” – says Joe McConnell (Joe McConnel) from the Desert Research Institute in Reno (USA).
In recent years, scientists have been actively interested in how human activity and population growth could have influenced climate and ecology before the industrial age (which is usually associated with global warming and a sharp increase in the concentration of harmful substances in the atmosphere, water and soil).
For example, a year ago, Australian climatologists analyzed a number of natural climate “chronicles” and found out that global warming could not begin in the middle of the 20th century, but in 1880-1890, when Europe and America experienced the peak of industrial development.
In addition, historians and climatologists have long been interested in another “calling card” of human civilization – the tendency to pollute nature with lead and other heavy metals. The ancient Romans and many other nations actively used lead for the manufacture of dishes and various household items, pipelines and even for the production of sugar.
The first study of this kind was conducted by scientists two years ago: they studied the chemical composition of the ices formed in the Swiss and Italian Alps over the past two thousand years. As a result, it was found, in addition to the unexpectedly high level of air pollution, that the economic development of Europe several times abruptly stopped and rolled back. The largest episode was associated with the famous “Black Death” – the most powerful epidemic of plague in 1349-1353.
If you believe the data from the Alps, then the production of lead for several decades almost completely stopped because of the death of about a third of the population of Europe and the destruction of all economic and trade relations. Many historians did not believe in such catastrophic results, so supporters and opponents of this hypothesis began to look for evidence.
“Unlike our previous research and colleagues, we now used not one but three dozen ice samples. Our analysis confirmed that even before the industrial revolution, lead began to accumulate in large quantities in all parts of the Arctic, and its only source there are only European metallurgical emissions, “continues McConnell.
The scientist noted that ice samples were obtained not in the Alps, but at very distant points of the Arctic — on the surface of the Greenland ice sheet and off the coast of the Russian Northern Earth.
By comparing the percentage of lead in samples, the researchers could not only verify the statements of their colleagues, but also localize the sources of emissions and link them to specific mines, as well as to the growth and decline of the economy of certain regions of Europe.
For example, traces of the rapid growth of the French economy in 700–1000 and the simultaneous withering of the former Roman Empire, as well as evidence of the birth of the first German states and fiefdoms, were found. Interestingly, Europe reached the level of ancient Rome only by the beginning of the XII century, and this indicates a huge decline in the economy after the fall of Pax Romana.
In addition, scientists have recorded several sharp collapses of the economy associated with other pandemics: the ancient plague of Justinian and the epidemics of Cyprian and Antonin in the II and III centuries, also allegedly caused by the plague wand.
It was possible to detect the first traces of two powerful cholera epidemics that hit Russia and Europe in the middle of the 19th century. These outbreaks of the disease particularly affected the amount of lead in the Russian Arctic ice and generated a negative effect comparable in impact to the economy with plague epidemics.
According to climatologists, lead concentration can be attributed both to the fact that cholera had a particularly strong impact on the life of the Russian Empire, and to the fact that the ice of Novaya Zemlya was generally more sensitive to changes in the amount of emissions than the Greenland ice sheet. Other samples of ancient ice, the researchers hope, will help give a more definitive answer to this question and reveal other secrets of history.