As researchers from the University of Oslo hinted that we must move blame for the Black Death away from rats and instead look towards their scapegoaty rodent cousins, gerbils, I was intrigued by one of the quotes widely published across the newspapers. It’s from Professor Nils Christian Stenseth, one of the gerbil-blaming Viking scientists, and he says:
“If we’re right, we’ll have to rewrite that part of history.”
‘Fair enough,’ I thought, but then I thought, ‘but actually, is it?’.
The Norwegians came to their conclusion by examining tree rings from the time of the European plague epidemic(s) of the 14th Century. And, although I’m no expert in tree-ring science, it seems to me that their hypothesis that it was the killer gerbils that brought the plague to Europe from Asia rather than rats, is solely based on the weather being warm enough to support the little bastards. Is that really enough? Wouldn’t the rats also have been basking in the deliciously temperate prevailing conditions that Prof Stenseth’s team describes?
The researchers are now going to look at the DNA of medieval plague bacteria for gerbil fur to see if that can shed any further light on which of the furry little shits killed 200 million people 600 years ago. But how sure do they have to be before Nils Christian gets his wish to rewrite history? And who gets to decide? Is there some panel that’s in charge of consensus in matters historical? And are they experts in dendrochronology? And microbiology? And anthropology? And everything else as well?
And do the gerbils get a say in this?
My feeling is that you can’t just look at a few trunks and stumps and decide that you’re going to change everything that’s gone before. There is clear evidence that plague bacterium was carried by fleas were carried by rats, so this new hypothesis needs much more work before we get the eraser out. Maybe if they spent less time examining old trees and more time working on a time machine, we’d be able to solve this rodent responsibility riddle once and for all.
In the meantime, until they’re in the clear, you might want to make sure your gerbils are safe and secure.